— Steven Greenfield and Barbara Pollard in The Spitfire Grill. Photo by Francesca Albertazzi.
THE SPITFIRE GRILL
The Spitfire Grill is a stage musical based on the 1996 movie of the same name. After it won the Audience Award at Sundance, Roger Ebert described the film as “an unabashedly manipulative, melodramatic tearjerker with plot twists that Horatio Alger would have been embarrassed to use.” On Rotten Tomatoes it scores only 33% from the critics but 76% from audiences.
Having shed some of the movie’s more outrageous plot devices, the theatrical adaptation by James Valcq and Fred Alley remains a feel-good audience favourite, a story of hope and redemption that would seem ideal for a church basement venue like Pacific Theatre.
Yet this guest production by the Midnight Theatre Collective enjoys only mixed success. Its strong performances struggle with music and lyrics that want desperately to soar but for the most part stay earthbound. And ironically, the intimate Pacific Theatre space proves an obstacle for a production sometimes too big for its own good.
At the centre of the story is Percy, a young woman played with fierce commitment by Julie McIsaac. Just paroled from five years in prison for a crime that will be revealed to us much later, she sings of feeling buried alive and looks to find a place to start over.
That place is the nowhere town of Gilead, Wisconsin, whose locals gather at its only eatery, the Spitfire Grill, to exchange their own tales of woe. Percy goes to work there for Hannah (Barbara Pollard), who still grieves for her son Eli, the town’s golden boy, missing in action in Vietnam decades before. He won’t be the only lost child in the play.
Hannah’s story is sung beautifully by Shelby (a standout performance by Caitriona Murphy, who sings the other best song, too). Shelby is locked in an unhappy marriage with whiney Caleb (Damon Calderwood), who has ruined his life unsuccessfully trying to fill Eli’s shoes.
Sheriff Joe (Steven Greenfield, doubling as musical director) can’t wait to move away—until he starts falling for Percy. Gossipy postmistress Effy (Sarah May Redmond) provides steady comic relief.
But where everyone else sees a wasteland, Percy, whose life has been genuinely terrible, begins to see a paradise. Her turning point comes when she and Shelby compose an ad describing Gilead for a contest to sell the Spitfire. “You can own a piece of heaven,” they sing, and Percy realizes she actually has come to feel that way about the place.
This should be the inspirational number that lifts us right out of our seats. But despite being sung by the two best voices in the show, it never takes off. Something similar happens with the second act’s musical climax, Percy’s healing hilltop vision of beauty and peace. The town is not called Gilead for nothing.
Everything in the play signals that these special moments should be emotionally profound and moving. But rather than reinforcing those feelings—one of the reasons for musicalizing a story like this—the songs, in their ordinariness, just remind us that our heartstrings are being tugged.
As if trying to lift the music and raise the emotional temperature, director Kerry van der Griend and musical director Greenfield bombard us with sound. Along with three musicians, every actor in the talented cast plays at least one instrument, so at times we hear two pianos (one particularly loud), two violins, a guitar, accordion and lots of percussion.
It’s musical shock and awe, but in that tiny space less is more.
Francesca Albertazzi provides a busy diner set and more props than I’ve ever seen on that stage before. It’s a full house—with just enough room for the reconciliation, rebirth and redemption that make this grill worth a visit.