How the Spitfire Grill has managed to stay afloat in a town where industry has closed its doors and the highway’s passed it by, nobody in Gilead, Wisconsin, can explain. Most of the letters on the diner’s neon sign don’t light up any more and its owner is having trouble just getting around the kitchen on her bum leg.
Enter Percy Talbott, a young woman just released from prison in 1997 with a travelogue picture in her pocket of an idyllic place where she can start a new life. The only trouble is the picture was taken in October and Percy gets out of stir in the dead of winter.
Everyone, including the town and the sign outside the diner, are redeemed in Penobscot Theatre Company’s fine production of “The Spitfire Grill, a Musical” at the Bangor Opera House. Directed by Dominick Varney, the cast and technical designers give the show a brighter glow than it probably deserves and send theatergoers home with full hearts and hope that all diners and ex-cons can be redeemed.
The musical was inspired by the 1996 film, which was written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff. The plot of the movie, financed by the Sacred Heart League, a Catholic non-profit that published religious books and videos, is very different than the musical, so cult fans beware.
Fred Alley, who wrote the lyrics, and composer James Valcq move the story’s setting from Maine to Wisconsin and tone down the film’s religious themes. The musical, which premiered in New York City on Sept. 7, 2011, is more about finding one’s purpose in life and starting over than redemption but it does offer a balm for troubled times.
Varney, a PTC veteran, adeptly uses the Opera House stage and the cast to wring every ounce heartwarming charm and comedy from the show. He is especially adept at illuminating women’s relationships and emotions.
Elizabeth Flanagan is delightful as Percy. Her eager openness to experience new places and embrace change allows the audience to see Gilead through fresh eyes and and eager heart. Flanagan has a beautiful voice that is able to express complex emotions while singing difficult music.
Brianne Beck as co-worker Shelby Thorpe, Kelly Lester as diner owner Hannah Ferguson and Heather Astbury-Libby as Effy Krayneck, the town postmistress and chief gossip, form with Flanagan a tight and feisty female ensemble that feels natural and strong by the end of Act I.
The men have some trouble breaking into this womanly sphere. It is not as difficult for Ira Kramer as Sheriff Joe Sutter, Percy’s love interest. Kramer brings a quiet strength to the role as Sutter slowly falls for Hannah. Despite the absence of a sexual spark between them, Kramer and Flanagan portray a believable “they were made for each” ambiance in their scenes together.
As Caleb Thorpe, Scott Johnson has the toughest time. Thorpe is a caricature of masculinity. There is little in the script to show that he can truly change his chauvinist ways or accept the economic changes that make him feel insignificant. Johnson needs to give the guy a smidge more humanity in order for the audience to care if Caleb’s on stage or not.
The music for “The Spitfire Grill” was not written for the average show band. It includes the usual keyboard (William Shuler) and guitar (Gaylen Smith), but adds a cello (Marisa Solomon), violin (Ryu Mitsuhashi) accordion (Rya Morrill) and mandolin (Smith). This combination of instruments adds depth and heft to the songs.
Technically, “The Spitfire Grill” is a triumph for PTC’s design team. Sean McClelland’s set and Jonathan’s Spencer’s lighting design create onstage the local diner familiar to every theatergoer. It is worn but welcoming and a workable space for the cast. More than dialogue or lyrics or practical costumes, designed by Kevin Koski, the lighting shows the changing seasons and the growing hope for better times in Gilead.
“The Spitfire Grill” is a trifle of a show but in Varney’s loving and guiding hands, the talented cast gives it strength and gravity. The audience opening night rose to its feet and cheered in response to the hope the show offers.
PTC’s season 44th season has been the best offered under the leadership of Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport. From the nail-biting suspense and rotating set of “Misery” to the harmonies and noteworthy arguments of “The Fabulous Lipitones” to the spectacle of “Beauty and the Beast” to the virtual reality projections of “Ugly Lie the Bone,” this season as a whole stands head and shoulders above Newport’s previous lineups.
That is because every script, including the flatulence-filled “Escanaba in Da Moonlight” and, despite a few flaws, “The Spitfire Grill,” has been solid. Let’s hope the 45th was built on the same criteria.
“The Spitfire Grill” will run through May 13 at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St., Bangor. For information, call 942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.