For audience members who grew up in small towns in Wisconsin, much about Four Seasons Theatre’s heartwarming production of The Spitfire Grill will look familiar. Everyone seems to know everyone else. There’s one place where the locals hang out to get a cup of coffee and catch up on the latest gossip. Things invariably used to be better, whether that means the local quarry has recently shut down, or GM closed the plant, or the place just looks drearier than it used to. Young people are moving away and the optimism that townspeople once had has been worn down over time. And undoubtedly, there’s nothing more interesting--or suspicious--than someone new settling in the hamlet.
And there’s much to be suspicious about when a young woman named Percy shows up at a bus stop in the middle of winter, clutching a picture of the quaint Midwestern town where she’s landed—directly after her release from a five year prison sentence. Since there’s nowhere else to stay, and no other jobs available, her parole officer suggests that the lost young woman take a room at the Spitfire Grill and work at the diner while she gets acclimated to her independence. The subject and the catalyst for change, Percy starts a new chapter of her life, as does the restaurant, many of the residents, and the town itself.
Based on the 1996 movie of the same title, The Spitfire Grill was adapted for the stage and converted into a musical by the Wisconsin duo of James Valq and American Folklore Theatre co-founder Fred Alley. The pair had collaborated on only one piece before creating this show, which has proved to be a sensation—after a short Broadway run, it’s been performed hundreds of times across the country, and even internationally. The musical equivalent of Almost, Maine, it’s a story of rebirth and redemption set in the mythical town of Gilead, Wisconsin. While there aren’t any references to the Packers, beer, or ice-fishing, it feels authentically local which has given the show a much wider appeal. Leaning on a pleasant blend of folk, country, and musical theater styles, the score is tuneful and very approachable. In the Four Seasons production, it’s also supported by an accomplished and perfectly balanced ensemble of musicians on piano, violin, cello, guitar, mandolin and accordion. (And yes, that’s Four Seasons’ producing artistic director Sarah Marty on her “big red” squeeze box.)
In the lead role, Eva Nimmer is luminous. Her unpretentious, breathy voice fits her unassuming character, and her many songs beautifully. And although her story arc is fairly steep, Nimmer’s Percy stays grounded. She oozes authenticity, alternately vulnerable and damaged, to stubborn and ready for redemption. Alone on stage in a spotlight, she sets exactly the right tone for the show in her solo, “Ring Around the Moon.” Another highlight of the evening was her frantic and twangy “Out of the Frying Pan,” where she expertly mimes the chaos of a short-order kitchen.
FST veterans Marja Barger and Jordan Peterson also hit all the right notes with their predictable characters. Barger plays the gruff-on-the-outside, marshmallow-on-the-inside owner of Spitfire Grill, who suffers from both failing health and heartbreak over the long-ago loss of her son. Appropriately crusty, her singing voice and physicality matches her no-nonsense approach. Peterson also does fine with the softball role of the local law man with a heart of gold. His duet “This Wide Woods” with Percy showcases both his agile, warm voice and his emotional range.
As the put-upon wife Shelby, Mari Bass not only fills the sturdy best friend and woman-coming-into-her-own roles with stoic resolve, she also has a gorgeous soprano that fills in the lovely high notes in ensemble numbers.
While the musical improves on its source material, which was called an “unabashedly manipulative, melodramatic tearjerker,” by movie critic Roger Ebert, it still retains some flat characters, predictable plot points and sappy dialogue. The most egregious examples are the chauvinist, controlling Caleb, who takes out his feelings of inadequacy on his mousy wife; and Effy, the cartoonish town busybody. Performers Trevor Bass and Sarah Streich do all they can with the stale types. Fortunately for Streich, there’s room for comedy in her role that she mines successfully.
While it isn’t exactly a holiday show, this production of Spitfire Grill makes a nice family outing during this season of thankfulness and joy. Running through December 10th in The Playhouse at Overture, it’s a lovely reminder that hope is all around us and second chances are worth taking.
An edited version of this review will appear in Isthmus.