On Thursday, I attended the Timber Lake Playhouse musical The Spitfire Grill, and caught another presentation of the piece - this time at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre - the very next night. I'm actually somewhat disappointed that no additional area venues staged the show over the weekend, because even after two outstanding Spitfire Grills in a row, I would've happily made time for more.
It's generally agreed that there are only two reasons for a song to exist in a traditional book musical: to reveal character or to further the plot. Among the many thrills of composer James Valcq's and lyricist Fred Alley's Spitfire Grill, its biggest may be that every single number seems to do both at once. You don't feel at all restless during the musical interludes here, partly because the score is so varied and tuneful, but mostly because you're always learning something during them; zoning out on the songs would mean missing storyline nuggets and personality insight that you wouldn't get, and wouldn't necessarily want, any other way. (First produced in 2001, the show is based on a 1996 movie, and touching and spiky though it is, the film doesn't boast the rhapsodic grace, or huge laughs, of Valcq's and Alley's achievement.)
The Spitfire Grill, however, also underlines the enormous pleasures of a strong narrative. Its setup is simple: Just released from prison, Percy Talbott - a native West Virginian in her early 20s - takes residence in the sleepy burg of Gilead, Wisconsin, is given a room and job at the town's lone eatery, and becomes instrumental in changing the lives of her steely but fair-minded employer Hannah, and her good-natured but browbeaten co-worker Shelby. Much of the story is devoted to the raffling off of Hannah's rustic establishment after 10 unsuccessful years on the market, and there's really little suspense about how the write-an-essay-and-win-a-diner plotline will resolve itself. Yet a story doesn't have to be surprising to be effective, and The Spitfire Grill's is fantastically effective, precisely because of the glorious empathy that Valcq and Alley (also the show's book writers) have for their characters.
You can easily guess the musical's ending - and the resolutions to numerous subplots - well before intermission, but that doesn't mean its narrative is a yawn. Due to the authors' wonderfully humane, openhearted acceptance of its complexly rendered Gilead residents (even Shelby's husband Caleb, the closest thing the show has to a villain), you're actually incredibly invested in the outcomes here. You want Percy, at long last, to find peace (perhaps with Gilead's friendly sheriff, Joe Sutter), and Hannah to relieve herself of her apparent, unspecified guilt, and Shelby to stand up to her domineering spouse. And you want to know how these inevitabilities will occur. The Spitfire Grill is that rarest of modern musicals - a legitimately sincere production - and so its laughter, tears (and you'll shed them), and deep rooting interest feel spectacularly well-earned.
At least they are in presentations as across-the-board excellent as those at Timber Lake and Richmond Hill, and you're even knocked out at the former before it starts, because Timber Lake designer Nathan Dahlkemper's set - with an evocative growth of leafless trees surrounding the titular grill - is a miracle of finely detailed mise-en-scène. Looking every bit the 50-year-old edifice it's described as, with the back porch's flimsy screen door an especially nice touch, Dahlkemper's tchotchke-laden playing area feels lived-in and full of character (it practically is a character), which makes it a perfect match for director Matthew Teague Miller's exquisite septet of performers.
As Percy, Erica Vlahinos demonstrates extraordinary vocal range; her lilting soprano on the opening "Ring Around the Moon" segues to a divine, Reba-esque holler on "Out of the Frying Pan," which segues to a soaring Broadway-belt voice on "The Colors of Paradise." Yet Vlahinos is also a breathtakingly understated actor here, allowing you to read the tiniest of Percy's temperamental shifts through the subtlest of inflections and gestures, and it's a welcome quality shared by Katie Wesler's lightly moving Shelby, and by Aaron Conklin's Joe, who exudes fundamental decency and budding romantic ardor with marvelous ease. (Conklin, with his movie-star handsomeness and exceptional tenor, is granted only one solo number here, but thankfully, it's a beaut.)
Brandon Ford finds dazzling emotional shadings in what, in lesser hands, could've been a one-note caricature, and his Caleb is as truthful and specific as Judy Knudtson's busybody postwoman Effy, another role that borders on stereotype but, thanks to the performer's radiant directness, instead emerges as a wholly believable (and hysterical) human being. Marcia Sattelberg's Hannah, meanwhile, is a constant joy, which wasn't necessarily to be expected with a character who spends four-fifths of the show scowling. No-nonsense, gruffly hilarious, and effortlessly affecting, especially when she sings a mournful "Way Back Home" to a stranger in the woods (a mute role delicately played by the haunted-looking Cody Canyon), she's the steadily beating heart of Timber Lake's sterling Spitfire Grill.
And heart is what director Jennifer Kingry's Richmond Hill presentation has in excess; Friday's attendees applauded the musical numbers with deserved zest, yet the biggest ovation actually came after Cait Bodenbender's Shelby quietly but steadfastly refused to wash one of Caleb's shirts. In truth, the clapping felt slightly unfair to Christopher Tracy, the splendid actor whose frustrated, self-loathing Caleb was hardly a monster. But I also loved the response, because it's not often that you witness such a fervid, spontaneous reaction to such an unforced bit, and from the start of Kingry's outing - which makes beautiful use of Richmond Hill's intimate space and showcases a magnificent (and visible) four-man band led by Karl Bodenbender - that tight kinship between performers and audience is completely earned.
Diane Greenwood, whose Effy is (and I mean this as a compliment) one of the Diane Greenwood-iest stage roles imaginable, gets the crowd roaring with her bustling elbows and crazed eccentricity, while Greg Goetz delivers a lovely turn as Joe, scoring empathetic laughs with his dry-comic incredulity at Effy's battiness. (For his part, Aaron E. Sullivan is physically imposing yet tender as that voiceless figure in the woods.) Yet The Spitfire Grill belongs to the inspiring female triumvirate at its core, and between Allison Scherer's naturally effervescent and magically dynamic Percy, Cait Bodenbender's peerlessly sweet and funny Shelby, and Nancy Teerlinck's fiercely sardonic, achingly soulful Hannah - all of whose solos and harmonies are to-die-for gorgeous - they form a partnership as engaging and honest as is theatrically fathomable. Kingry also designed the show's impressive, expressive lighting effects, but in a production this satisfying, they're almost redundant; from beginning to end, Richmond Hill's The Spitfire Grill feels lit from within.
For more information on the Timber Lake Playhouse's The Spitfire Grill, call (815)244-2035 or visit TimberLakePlayhouse.org. For more on the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's production of the musical, call (309)944-2244 or visit RHPlayers.com.