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By Judith Cookis Rubens
Posted: Oct. 6, 2012 at 3:05 p.m.; updated Oct. 7, 2012 at 2:31 p.m.
Small, backwoods towns can be intimidating to newcomers. Struggling (fictional) Gilead, Wis., in Farmers Alley Theatre's "The Spitfire Grill," is no exception.
But young parolee Percy Talbot is set on Gilead and its magical fall foliage after seeing pictures in a travel guidebook. To her, it's paradise; a fresh start. To the dwindling citizens of Gilead, it's a down-on-its-luck town that's lost hope.
Percy ends up a waitress/cook at the town's only eatery, The Spitfire, owned by a prickly widow, Hannah, another mysterious character with long-buried secrets. When Hannah winds up sidelined with a broken leg, Percy and Hannah's shy relative, Shelby, step in to run the grill. Together, the pair cooks up a plan to raffle off the long-for-sale grill with a creative essay contest, enabling Hannah to finally retire.
The plan – and Percy's prison past – scares up suspicions around town and leaves Hannah's nephew, Caleb, uneasy at the changes underfoot. Little do they know that Percy's arrival just might give the town – and their own lives – a jumpstart.
Director Kathy Mulay smartly guides this charming production through a suspenseful first half, delivering tender breakthroughs in act two. Originally based on a 1996 film, the musical version adds a more hopeful resolution and country-and folk-inspired tunes and lyrics to amp up the emotions.
While the material (by James Valcq and Fred Alley) is, at times, wildly melodramatic, the seven cast members give tremendous performances, grounding things in reality and delivering believable character transformations.
Anchoring the production is the talented Brenda Cox as crotchety Hannah, whose gruff exterior hides a damaged heart of gold. Farmers Alley newcomer Erin Oechsel finds quiet hope among the sadness and rage within Percy, a self-proclaimed "wild bird" (who's really more a wounded dove). Percy's romantic chemistry with hometown sheriff, Joe (Garen McRoberts), is sweet. The two have a beautiful duet, "This Wild Woods," about Gilead's natural beauty and promise. McRoberts is charming as the Gilead native who learns to see his town through new eyes.
Denene Mulay Koch brings out housewife Shelby's steely hidden power, and her impressive vocals shine in "When Hope Goes" and "Wild Bird." Michael J. Morrison is rightly imposing as Hannah's nephew, Caleb. Even Brigette Sitarski makes the most of her relatively small role as town gossip, Effy, adding humor without ever veering into cartoon caricature.
To buy Percy's fascination with Gilead, you need to believe in its promise of a simple life amidst beautiful scenery. W. Douglas Blickle's well-worn but cozy diner set is perfectly inviting, while the stage backdrop of seasonally changing woods is gorgeously lit by Lanford J. Potts.
Only the booming sound execution seemed to struggle on opening night.
Mulay and musical director Marie McColley Kerstetter guide strong musical numbers, though some of the best – lyrically and melodically – are the uptempo ensemble pieces such as "Something's Cooking" and "Shoot the Moon." A haunting montage number about the passage of time is creatively choreographed.
With such heady, spiritual themes as redemption and forgiveness, it would've been easy to overdo it, but that never happens here. We're rooting for these people to heal.
It's a rare thing, in a show, to find characters you're truly sad to part with at the end. The Spitfire Grill feels like a diner you'd really want to visit.
Now that's good theater.
SHOW DETAILS: "The Spitfire Grill" continues at Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo, Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 21. Tickets: $27-31. For information: 269-343-2727 or www.FarmersAlleyTheatre.com.
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