“The Spitfire Grill” – Phoenix Theatre
This review aired on KBAQ October 10, 2011
PHOENIX THEATRE’S DEEPLY MOVING “THE SPITFIRE GRILL” GUT WRENCHING
“THE SPITFIRE GRILL”
It should be no surprise that I love entertaining boy meets girl musicals but gritty, reality based musicals are often more enlightening and dig deeper than their lightweight brethren.
The intimate “Spitfire Grill” now at Phoenix Theatre in a deeply moving production, is such a soul searching musical that grows more multi-faceted and complex as it progresses. Add unusual but pleasing bluegrass songs and a gut wrenching musical results. If you only like glitzy musicals, though, “The Spitfire Grill” isn’t for you.
Based on the 1996 film, “The Spitfire Grill” centers on Percy, a young woman who just served five years for murdering her stepfather. Initially, she sounds awful but revelations add perspective to why she killed. She settles in Gilead, a backward Wisconsin town, where she lands a waitressing job at the town’s only restaurant.
The townspeople have weird, slowly revealed pasts. Too often they accept norms that cause them additional troubles. By the end, Percy’s found home and her dominance helps folks resolve their checkered pasts.
It’s an affecting show and many will be teary eyed by the end. Perhaps the show resolves too many awful situations too easily but, after all, most musicals jump to quick and easy conclusions. Percy gets to know the restaurant owner, Hannah, the town sheriff, Joe, Hannah’s nephew Caleb, his clever but repressed wife, Shelby, and the gossipy Effy. Hannah’s son, Eli, figures in the plot and prompts character development. These misfits kibitz around the grill. Some change while others repress and reject growth.
The Phoenix Theatre production couldn’t be better from Brad Carroll’s thoughtful but unassuming staging that allows audiences to understand this motley collection of humanity with stunning insight, to the unit set’s stark reality, to the character-defining costumes, and finally to an impeccable singing ensemble who create meaningful characters.
Trisha Hart Ditsworth’s artful Percy lets us know this character’s forceful exterior but she also subtly reveals Percy’s willingness to change. Barbara McBain’s Hannah slowly evolves as her initially straightforward life gets mired in past hurts. Jeannie Shubitz’s Shelby is initially unwilling to stand up to her dominant husband but evolves into a determined character who wants what’s right. Rusty Ferracane’s Caleb and Toby Yatso’s Joe are stalwart guys until they are challenged and must change. Johanna Carlisle’s Effy is a colorful character whose noisiness prompts growth and rebellion in Percy and Shelby. Jason Barth’s Eli provides character revelations with subtle physical inflection in a remarkably understated but powerful performance.
“The Spitfire Grill” is a rich surprise, an emotionally moving musical that delivers amazing character evolution. It plays through October 23. For tickets, call the Phoenix Theatre box office at 602-254-2151 or order tickets online at www.phoenixtheatre.com.