Reviewed by Suzanne Angeo (member, American Theatre Critics Association)
and Greg Angeo (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)
Photos courtesy of Meadow Brook Theatre
“Spitfire Grill” Serves Up Some Down-home Charm
The story of “The Spitfire Grill”, a musical presented by Meadow Brook Theatre on the Oakland University campus, proves that disruption can be a good thing. In ways that are at first too small to be seen, like the tiny breeze from butterfly wings that can affect the weather miles away, one person can have a profound effect on those whose lives they touch, and beyond.
“Spitfire” began its barely six-week run off-Broadway in the fateful month of September 2001. The shattering effect of the terrorist attacks drew New York audiences to the comfort of the show’s gentle reassurance and lovely musical score, with characters that feel like family. The book was co-authored by American writers and longtime friends James Valcq and Fred Alley, with Valcq composing the music and Alley, the lyrics. Tragically, Alley died just two weeks before the show’s production workshop in May 2001.
The story is set off the beaten path, in a town in Wisconsin surrounded by forest. It’s the kind of place, the locals say, that’s good for leaving. For newcomer Percy, moving to the little town of Gilead and working at the old rundown diner offer her an escape from sorrow and the chance to start again. Despite her sincere efforts at friendship and determination to make good, she faces the headwinds of small-town gossip and suspicion. Will she ever fit in with these people, who seem so preoccupied with their own troubles?
Emily Hadick as Percy projects a sensitive wariness shaded with hope for better things, and just a touch of stubbornness. Her exquisite voice is well-suited for the music. The grill’s crotchety owner Hannah, played with feisty warmth by Mary Robin Roth, soon becomes her greatest ally. And Percy finds another friend in Shelby, played with quiet strength by Larissa Klinger, who helps out at the grill. Cory Cunningham delivers a solid performance as the low-key sheriff Joe. He hangs around the place, at first to keep an eye on Percy and make sure she stays out of trouble, and later for more personal reasons. Shelby’s distrustful, controlling husband Caleb is effectively portrayed by Dan Fenaughty. Kim Rachelle Harris is appropriately irritating as the town’s chief “Postmistress” and rumormonger, Effy. A mysterious, silent stranger (Michael Brian Ogden) makes nightly visits. Their lives will be forever changed by having Percy in their midst.
Sure-footed direction and straightforward storytelling by Travis Walter and an evocative set design by Kristen Gribbin lend an intimate, cozy feel to the show. The graceful musical score, a combination of bluesy folk and country-style ballads, is performed by the cast and accompanied by the excellent five-piece band led by Jeffrey Campos. Memorable numbers include: “Come Alive Again”; “Colors of Paradise”; “Shoot the Moon” and “Wild Bird”. The ensemble cast has some thrilling harmonies and outstanding vocals throughout the show.
True, there is no crackling dramatic tension or rip-roaring laughter. Just a gently pleasing show, with some interesting plot twists and surprises in store. And music that will get under your skin.
When: Now through March 10, 2019
8:00 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays
6:30 p.m. Sundays
2:00 p.m. Wednesdays & Sundays; Saturday, March 9
Tickets $36 to $45
Where: Meadow Brook Theatre at Wilson Hall
378 Meadow Brook Rd
Rochester Hills, MI 48309