BWW Review: THE SPITFIRE GRILL at Oyster Mill Playhouse
When an actor starts out on their journey to stardom, they are bound to hear the same advice from a multitude of concerned friends and relatives: theatre is a cut-throat business, and nothing is set in stone. However, when these well-meaning people give this warning, they are more than likely referring to the worlds of New York City and Hollywood, the promised lands for actors and theatre-goers alike. They are not thinking of community theatre, which in some ways can be equally as vastly competitive and filled with it's own kind of drama. It can be just as difficult to make a mark on your hometown theatre scene than it is on the streets of Broadway, especially when you are surrounded by a wealth of local talent. It could be easy for Oyster Mill Playhouse in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania to fall victim to the curse of community obscurity, but they have proven to have done just the opposite, especially with their production of THE SPITFIRE GRILL.
Yet another case of an underrecognized production, THE SPITFIRE GRILL is a musical based upon the 1996 film of the same name. It follows Percy Talbott, a young woman recently released from prison who is hoping to make a new life for herself when she is employed at the Spitfire Grill in Gilead, Wisconsin. The film was adapted for the stage by lyricist Fred Alley and composer James Valcq, both men taking credit for the book. While the show never opened on Broadway, the Duke Theatre sponsored an Off-Broadway production which saw a run from September 7th to October 14th, 2001. Despite it's short time onstage, THE SPITFIRE GRILL was the recipient of The American Academy of Arts and Letters' acclaimed Richard Rodgers Production Award in the same year. Since this time, the show has not only been continuously performed in the United States but has been produced in countries such as Germany, South Korea, and Japan as well. Oyster Mill Playhouse's rendition of the tale brings out the heart, humor, and emotion that the show has become known for over the years.
While not boasting particularly large stage, Oyster Mill has crafted a comfortably intimate Spitfire Grill that is not only functional, but is incredibly well-furnished. It creates a rustic, rural atmosphere that we are told surrounds the town of Gilead and assumedly it's residents as well. This grill is frequented by a host of characters, each one equally as intriguing as the one before, but none stirs up as much speculation in both the town and the minds of the audience as Percy Talbot. Played by Nina Cline, Percy is a character who immediately makes it known to us that she has fought through many a hard time in her life, most recent of these being the five years she spent in jail. This has left her with a hard, tough-as-nails exterior that Cline portrays very well, despite seeming a bit out of place in this attitude. On the whole, Cline's Percy is stubborn and closed-off when she first arrives in Gilead, as one would expect of a fresh ex-convict.
As the show progresses, however, Cline seems to find her niche in a Percy that begins to open up to the Spitfire's regulars. Her budding relationships with each character continue to grow, and Cline shines even brighter when her character drops the tough-girl routine and lets her gentler side take over. Cline appears much more comfortable in portraying a softer Percy, one that smiles more frequently and is capable of emotions beyond frustration or boredom. She then emerges much more natural, letting the audience strongly connect with her and hope for her character's happiness. Her interactions with Shelby Thorpe and Sheriff Joe Sutter are particularly interesting, as Cline uses these as opportunities to showcase a Percy that is genuinely caring despite having been through a myriad of troubles in her life. Cline's most impressive moment comes in the form of Percy's confession, one that seems to stun the audience a bit and leaves the room speechless. Cline seems to bear her own soul along with Percy in these serious moments, and proves her talent all the more securely. Her vocal ability also displays a host of excellence, especially her strong belt in numbers such as "Ring Around the Moon" and "Shine." Her voice fits the tone of the show very well, and makes her a wonderful leading lady.
Another equally outstanding performance comes from Rebecca Schrom as Shelby Thorpe, the timid and obedient wife of Caleb Thorpe who comes to aid Percy in running The Spitfire Grill. Shrom, while particularly wowing the audience with a lovely soprano voice in songs such as "When Hope Goes" and "Wild Bird," also gives us a Shelby that is endlessly sweet and selfless, a combination that leaves her as one of the most likable characters in the show. However, her deference to her demanding husband leaves her very clearly afraid to rock the boat despite being full of hope and ideas. Schrom's Shelby is bright and optimistic nevertheless, but has notable moments of sadness and anger, cementing Schrom's versatility as an actress. Her use of emotion and physicality is some of the best in the show, clearly that of someone with much experience. While her character is consistent in her kind and gentle nature, moments where Shelby stands up for herself are perhaps some of the most interesting in the show, as they satisfy the audience's desire to see her turn her situation around. Schrom does a fantastic job in creating a well-rounded and realistic character, one that seems familiar to us and one that the audience enjoys immensely.
In contrast, Shelby's husband Caleb Thorpe is not one that the audience can always take to so kindly. While responsible and dedicated to the care of his aunt Hannah, the owner of the Spitfire Grill, Caleb's forceful and controlling attitude towards Shelby mark him as a man who needs to be in charge. Michael Beckstein's portrayal of Caleb is one that brings out the character's near obsession with masculinity, the belief that he must cling on to whatever can make him a real man. In the context of the show, this appears to mean having control over his wife, and the dynamic between Beckstein and Schrom as a couple is one that is very strong and poignant throughout the course of the story. They are able to play very opposite characters, and the juxtaposition between them is what makes their marriage so interesting despite it's quiet sadness. Beckstein, while sometimes seeming to lack the emotion and conviction that his character could use, ultimately uses strong vocal talent to bring Caleb's inner thoughts to the surface in the song "Digging Stone," highlighting the conflicted nature of his character that makes him more than what he seems.
In addition to Percy and Shelby, Sheriff Joe Sutter also wins the heart of the audience early on in the show, thanks to an admirable performance by Joshua Schwartz. As the one who first brings Percy to Gilead, Schwartz's character is one that keeps close ties with Percy, and one of the most interesting to watch develop in a relationship with her. Schwartz gives Sheriff Joe a certain sincerity that makes him infinitely lovable, making it clear from the start that he wants only the best for Percy. His style of acting is one that the reviewer particularly enjoyed, as his natural stage presence makes him one of the most realistic characters in the show. Schwartz's rich and smooth voice is showcased very well in songs such as "This Wide Woods" and "The Forest for the Trees," and his performance as a whole is perhaps facilitated most effectively by his impressive use of facial expressions at any given moment. His earnest intentions and enthusiasm in pursuing them give him an honest quality that the audience can't help but to grow attached to.
One of the most entertaining characters in the show is undoubtedly that of Effy Krayneck, as portrayed by Rosie Turner. Turner has managed to craft an Effy that embodies the spirit of a suburban neighborhood mom in a decidedly rural environment. Her position as the town postmistress leaves her with an affinity for the latest gossip and the means to easily spread it around. She is filled to the brim with a lust for drama, and Turner has no trouble channelling an exceptional sneaky, nosy town gossip. The tone and cadence of her voice make Effy sound supremely self-absorbed and yet concerned with everyone else's business at the same time, an impressive feat that does not go unnoticed. However, there were a few moments where Turner could play up the obnoxious nature of her character even further, but this does not take away from the obvious quality of her performance. Effy's later change of heart makes her into a character that is much more well-meaning but still in possession of a "large and in charge" attitude that makes her all the more entertaining. In addition, her vocal talent is just as strong as her acting ability, and while not having a song to herself, her solos in "Something's Cooking at the Spitfire Grill" and "Ice and Snow" add greatly to the overall performance.
Finally, Becky Wilcox brings us Hannah Ferguson, the long-time owner of the Spitfire Grill. She rivals Percy in stubbornness and supplies a never-ending wealth of wit. While Wilcox occasionally forgets a line or two, she covers these slip-ups nicely and makes up for them with an excellent employment of both sarcasm and genuine feeling that make her another audience favorite. Hannah's dry humor and no-nonsense attitude seems to be Wilcox's specialty, but she particularly stands out during her more serious moments, especially in her song, "Way Back Home," a number that contains a longing and heartbreak that Wilcox delivers quite nicely. Hannah's dedication to her grill and the obvious affection she feels for the other characters are qualities that Wilcox brings to attention along with Hannah's tough attitude. Her ability to shine during somber times is similar to that of Cline's Percy, bringing out some of the parallels between their characters that make their relationship all the more interesting. In fact, the interactions between the characters and their time together on stage is what makes this production particularly outstanding.
While each member of the cast stands out on their own, ensemble or combined numbers are perhaps some of the most enjoyable of the show, including "Something's Cooking at the Spitfire Grill," "Ice and Snow," and "The Colors of Paradise." The cast comes together with ease, and their chemistry either as a whole or in pairs brings out the best in everyone. Relationships are dynamic and grow throughout the performance, and the vocal ability displayed by each individual increases tenfold when joined by the other cast members. Each character builds the other one up, and this ascension makes the quality of the show rise as well. THE SPITFIRE GRILL at Oyster Mill Playhouse is a show that, more than anything else, gives the heartstrings a good tug. It is filled with emotion and sincerity, reminding the audience of the power of redemption and the fulfillment of coming together as a community while giving us a few good laughs along the way. It is a show that, when all is said and done, definitely deserves a second helping.
Presented by Oystery Mill Playhouse through March 26th. Next is SUPERIOR DONUTS. Visit oystermill.com.
Photo Credit: Ron Ross