BWW Review: THE SPITFIRE GRILL at DreamWrights Center For Community Arts
The musical The Spitfire Grill was first produced Off-Broadway at the Duke Theatre in 2001. Written by James Valcq and Fred Alley, the musical is based on the 1996 film. The show presents us with a moment in the life of Percy Talbot, a young woman recently released from prison, and the residents of Gilead, where the Spitfire Grill is up for sale. The Spitfire Grill is a beautiful show that requires a strong cast and creative direction to truly come alive. Under the direction of Laurie Riffe, the cast and crew at DreamWrights Center for Community Arts deliver an authentic, heartwarming production of The Spitfire Grill.
One of the most difficult parts to pull off is the role of The Visitor. This part has no lines in the show, so every motion, step, look, and facial expression must be intention and must tell the story. Matthew Ballistreri performs this role wonderfully. Even though he never speaks, the audience can feel his emotions, particularly in his interactions with Percy (played by Nina Cline) and Hannah Ferguson (portrayed by Annie Susemihl).
Two of my favorite characters in the show are Joe Sutter and Effy Krayneck. Joe is the Sheriff of Gilead tasked with keeping track of Percy. Effy is the postmistress and queen of gossip in the town. Both of these characters provide comic relief during the show. Andrew Smith and Corinne Brown tackle these roles with ease. It takes a great deal of finesse to bring out the humor in these characters while still making them feel real. Smith infuses Joe with an "aw shucks" kind of humility that is quite endearing, and his performance in "Forest for the Trees" is adorable and heartfelt.
Brown manages to give Effy a depth that I was not expecting. She is not a caricature of the "town gossip" but rather a woman who cares deeply about what happens in her town and in the lives of her neighbors, who are really more like family than mere acquaintances or even friends. These characters also require strong voices that can hold a harmony line, which both Smith and Brown do well. Some of the best moments in the play musically were the ensemble numbers where their strong, clear voices create beautiful harmonies.
Kevin Alvarnaz appears as Caleb Thorpe, an emotionally complicated role. It would be easy to just play this character as angry, but Alvarnaz finds the nuance in his anger so that the audience can experience his frustration, self-doubt, fear of change, and desire to be more than what he is. This particularly comes out when he sings "Digging Stone".
The owner of the Spitfire Grill, Hannah Ferguson, is capably portrayed by Annie Susemihl. While not the strongest singer, Susemihl's depth of emotion is incredible. Her performance of "Way Back Home", which she performs as a poem rather than as a song, is beautiful and mesmerizing because of the emotion in her voice and on her face.
Nina Cline and Amanda Nowell round out this ensemble cast. Amanda Nowell plays the role of Shelby Thorpe. Shelby undergoes an inspiring shift from a meek, quiet, submissive girl to a strong, independent woman who isn't afraid to speak up for herself. Nowell manages this character arc with beautiful subtlety, even showing this shift in her posture, expression, and movements. Her voice is gorgeous, soaring easily to hit Shelby's high notes with a clear round tone that gives the audience goosebumps.
This is Nina Cline's second time playing the part of Percy Talbot, and I was fortunate to have seen her play the role the first time around, as I was able to see how she has further developed the character. Her chemistry with Nowell's Shelby and Smith's Joe lends an authenticity to the show, drawing us into their lives. There were times in the beginning of the show when the accent Cline used made it difficult to understand the words in the songs, particularly in "A Ring Around the Moon". Luckily, I knew the words, but for those audience members who did not, it would have been better to worry less about the accent and worry more about enunciating clearly. Cline's best musical performances are "The Colors of Paradise" (performed with Nowell) and "Shine" where she really opens up and lets her voice take center stage. Cline's acting is perfect for Percy, with just the right amount of defensiveness, wistfulness, compassion, and hope. She has clearly studied her character and the character's relationships to be able to internalize and perform a difficult role so well.
The acting is well directed and well performed, and the set and lighting serve to heighten the aesthetic experience, allowing the audience to feel like they are part of the story. The instrumental music sounded wonderful, but (and I've never said this before at a live show) it could have been louder. With so many strong voices on stage, the balance was not quite there with the band, and the voices often overwhelmed the instrumental music so much that it could barely be heard. While I appreciate very much being able to hear the voices loud and clear, the instruments add so much to the overall experience that I wish I could have heard them better.
If you are looking for a show that will make you feel something, including hope, go to The Spitfire Grill at DreamWrights. They have done a lovely job bringing a beautiful show to life, and you only have one weekend to catch it! Get your tickets before it's too late at www.dreamwrights.org