Never been a big fan of country music as a whole but I usually find it more palatable in a musical (Cotton Patch Gospel, Hands On A Hard Body, etc.). “The Spitfire Grill” is a show I’ve been listening to for years and find the home-spun music with some big show aspirations a delightful, tuneful CD to pop in the car on occasion. Insight Theatre Company has finally brought the show itself to my front door and the results are a bit mixed but worth the trip for some outstanding performances even though the story is a bit old fashioned. I have never seen the 1998 film on which the musical is based, but it’s folksy charm as translated to the stage is a bit much.
Perchance Talbot, just call her Percy, comes to the town of Gilliad, Wisconsin after a five year stay in prison. Her criminal background becomes fodder for some of the folks in town as her story unfolds throughout the play. She meets the kindly and helpful sheriff, Joe, who snags her a job at Hannah Ferguson’s Spitfire Grill- the only eatin’ place in town. She next meets Hannah’s nephew, Caleb and his wife, Shelby along with the town gossip and all-around busy body, Effy. Listed in the program as “The Visitor,” we soon meet the stranger that Hannah leaves a loaf of bread out for every night and he also plays an important role in the story as his background unfolds.
Percy has a hard time adjusting and gaining acceptance with the small town folk but she becomes a favorite to everyone except Caleb, who feels she’s influencing his usually pliant wife. She’s gaining independence from the man who used to be a big shot but now only has his wife to boss around. As secrets unfold and Hannah’s plan to “raffle” off the Grill to the most deserving essay (along with a $100 entry fee) on why folks think they deserve to be given the Spitfire, the sporadic musical score gives us some lovely ballads- “The Wide Woods” and “Forest For The Trees” along with the haunting opening number, “A Ring Around The Moon” and the raucous First Act closer, “Shoot The Moon.” How everything is resolved and what happens to the characters, including the Grill itself, makes for a pleasant if not totally absorbing story.
Sam Auch is a real find in the role of Percy. Her resounding, strong voice and emotional delivery make her a likable character right off the bat. Pete Winfrey also shines as the smitten sheriff and does Jenni Ryan as the long-suffering wife, Shelby. Janet Wells is a hoot as the irascible Hannah and Troy Turnipseed is powerful as the emasculated Caleb. Amy Loui gives us a great performance as the butt-insky, Effy and Paul Balfe rounds out the cast as the infamous “visitor.” Insight’s Artistic Director, Maggie Ryan, directs “The Spitfire Grill” with a deft hand and creates some beautiful stage pictures with the help of a powerful Kyra Bishop set design.
Catherine Kopff handles the musical direction well with a backstage orchestra that features piano, strings and accordion. The Jeff Behm lights are great as are the fine costumes designed by Tracy Newcomb. With music and book by James Valco and lyrics and book by Fred Alley, “The Spitfire Grill” is a delightful diversion and is ably assisted by a strong cast.
If you’re a big fan of the folksy, feel-good story line and the somewhat CW feel of the music, “The Spitfire Grill” is the play for you. Catch it at Insight Theatre Company through August 31st. Contact them at insighttheatrecompany.com for tickets or more information.