Saturday, March 20, 2010

Review of *The Spitfire Grill*

Posted on Sat, Mar 20, 2010 at 5:47 PM

You’re feeling depressed. You need comforting. You seek out a friend.

Your friend consoles you, but she also keeps calling attention to how kind she is for doing it. She even keeps reminding you of how she's doing it — this memory here, that joke there, the shared memory that always makes you smile. (Remember?)

Pretty soon, you don't feel consoled anymore. Your friend is taking more pride in her own counseling skills than in actually comforting you. You feel a mix of uplift and manipulation.

That's what watching The Spitfire Grill is like.

Director Marianne McLaughlin's production of the 2001 musical (downstairs at Spokane Civic Theater through April 11) offers highlights: David Baker's cozy backwoods set, three compelling performances, several lovely musical moments, the inspiration of seeing regular folks overcoming adversities. But vocal weakness, a score and lyrics that are serviceable but usually not memorable, and too many emotional crises undermine this rendition of the popular musical.

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The three standouts are Manuela Peters (as Percy, the outcast who reinvigorates these small-town folks and teases out their secrets), Brian Gunn (as her love interest, the local sheriff), and Liberty Harris as Shelby (the domineered housewife who asserts herself and forges a friendship with Percy).

Peters has a tour de force in "Out of the Frying Pan," when she sings expressively and cooks ineptly, all at the same time. (Baker's working diner pays attention to detail.) Harris rises to the show's vocal peak in the following song, "When Hope Goes," a lament for a small-town hero. With affecting simplicity — just a few economical movements — Harris conveys a parade passing by; for the song's conclusion, Harris made "We are waiting still" convey all the disappointment of hopes that have been smashed. Peters and Harris together generated lots of girlish excitement in "The Colors of Paradise" and in the whole flurry over the future of the Grill. (Despite some quavering in her unaccompanied show-opening solo, Peters demonstrates that she can hit the high and joyous notes.)

Gunn looks more like a choir boy than a sheriff, but he has the knack of acting while singing: In a couple of songs about the forests looming outside this small Wisconsin town, he switched from skepticism to appreciation. (Percy, we're supposed to think, has that kind of magical effect on everyone.)

None of the rest of the cast, however, is vocally strong. They were in earnest, but their emotions sometimes got splattered by flatted and off-key notes.

Aaron Waltman avoided cliche by tempering the grouchy, controlling husband's grouchiness and control issues. But his singing has projection and pitch problems.

As the elderly owner of the diner, Judi Pratt was too grandmotherly from the outset: More aloofness and distrust would better suit her few tight-lipped lines in the early going and, in addition, set up an emphatic contrast with the rejuvenated woman she becomes. Sallie Christensen found the comedy as the local gossip-monger.

At the keyboard, music director Janet Robel leads cello and mandolin in musical accents that support the action, right down to the plink-plink of a telephone being dialed.

McLaughlin's direction is best in its simplicity: stand-and-deliver solo moments, a nice three-part madrigal for the passage of winter into spring that underscored the townspeople's hopes and disappointments.

On opening night, part of the sound system went out. Lighting cues were slow, and actors sometimes strolled into dark dead spots (and remained in them). But those technical difficulties will soon be fixed.

What won't find a remedy is the show's herky-jerk sentimentality, in which characters' emotional sore spots and long-withheld secrets, barely hinted at, are suddenly broached in one song and smoothed over in the next -- so we might as well wipe our hands on our aprons and move on to the next emotional crisis, because thank God, that one's taken care of. Peters, for example, packs emotional wallop into Percy's big second-act revelation, but then a redemptive song like "Wild Bird" soon follows, and that's all sorted out, then. Fred Alley's lyrics over-rely on repetition, and they tend to literalize their metaphors -- again, over-emphasizing the symbolism and yanking on our heartstrings.

In the show's least believable redemption, Percy reintroduces a fellow outcast to society in "Shine." McLaughlin and Peters deserve much credit for the beauty of this testimonial song, with the actress extending two hands toward a heavenly light and pleading, it becomes clear, for her own and everyone's redemption. But I couldn't shake off the feeling, while watching, that a deeply entrenched problem stretching over several years had just been solved in the space of a few minutes.

Puppy dogs and the National Anthem -- they make me tear up every time. But when you stuff a two-hour musical with the distrust of outsiders, prodigal sons and daughters, controlling spouses, long-held resentments, the protection of family secrets, sinners in need of redemption, touching complaints about hard times, unlikely romance, marriages busted and mended, busybodies and small-town American values, by gum, it all gets too frothy. There's too much insistence on the audience's fellow-feeling.

In just nine years, Spitfire has been produced hundreds of times, all over the country and even internationally. Problems are overcome, lives are redeemed, the value of community is affirmed. The show obviously appeals to plenty of folks.

I had high hopes for this production, and it has its moments. But mostly, I was disappointed. Spitfire's flame shines brightly at times, but mostly it's weak and flickering.

The Spitfire Grill continues at the Civic’s Studio Theater through April 11

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