October 26, 2015

Review: 'The Spitfire Grill' fails to sizzle

By Sebastian Smolinski

Something corny this way comes.

The musical “The Spitfire Grill,” on stage at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood, features ex-convict Percy Talbott (Neely Gevaart), who ends up in Gilead, WI., seeking redemption while working at the only diner in this depressed little town.

At first she’s met with a mix of hostility and curiosity. She’s looked over by the Sheriff (Shane Patrick O’Neill), gossiped about by the town’s busybody Effy (Lissy Gulick), befriends young Shelby Thorpe (Kate Leigh Michalski). She enters into a conflict with Shelby’s abusive husband, Caleb (Dan Folino), who is an angry young man living in the shadow of his dead cousin, Eli.

Gradually and all too predictably, she gains the trust of the locals including the gruff owner of the grill, Hannah Ferguson (Lenne Snively). Everyone in this play needs healing of some sort and, by play’s end—they get it.

Written by James Valcq and Fred Alley and opened Off-Broadway in 2001, “The Spitfire Grill” is based on the quite forgettable 1996 movie by Lee David Zlotoff.

The playwrights were drawn to the material because of its immense optimism, folksy tone and emotional intensity, and hoped to adapt the script into a musical that captured the same sentimentality.

Plus the film’s premise has plenty of weight and enough gravity to make for a great play. But something got lost in translation from film to the stage, for the story in “The Spitfire Grill” is as stale as your grandma’s bedtime tales and the music is similarly repetitive, predictable and flat. The flaws of the story are made even more troubling by the production itself. Beck Center’s low-budgeted set design is efficient but causes the actors to roam around an empty space for most of the time. Despite the warm interiors of the grill, much of the world of this play is awkwardly abstract.

This is meant to manipulate the audience’s emotions, but just comes across as uninteresting.
The production’s saving grace is the talent on stage. In particular, Gevaart as Percy has a strong voice that conveys her character’s hope and courage. O’Neill’s Sheriff and Snively’s Hannah are skillfully presented, giving rise to the rustic qualities and big heart that defines Gilead.

But they and other members of the cast cannot overcome the play’s fatal flaws, despite director William Roudebush’s best efforts, or give life to the old-fashioned musical numbers that dominate the show, despite music director Larry Goodpaster’s expert presentation of them.

In short, “The Spitfire Grill” presents us with an overly sentimental view of Middle America without realizing that few of us, in this day and age, are actually interested.

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