Friday, May 17, 2024

"The Spitfire Grill" by Ten Thousand Things at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church

Ten Thousand Things musicals are my favorite. When their trademark "All the Lights On" barebones style is applied to a musical, we get a few acoustic instruments accompanying unmiked singers performing a few feet in front of us, and the result is magical. The lovely Americana score and intimate story of the Off-Broadway musical The Spitfire Grill is a perfect choice for this treatment. The only problem with "all the lights on" is that everyone can see when you start to cry at the emotions brought on by the story and the music! But that's OK, they're probably crying too, and it's all part of being human, which is what this show exemplifies so beautifully. A simply stunning cast and simply charming design allow the true heart of this piece to shine, which is what Ten Thousand Things does so well. You can see The Spitfire Grill at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church this weekend (an easy-to-get-to location with a large free parking lot) or the following two weekends at The Jungle Theater, with free community performances continuing through June 9.

"There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole." So says the old spiritual, and so too is there a balm in the fictional town of Gilead, Wisconsin, the setting for the 2001 Off-Broadway musical The Spitfire Grill, based on the 1996 movie of the same name. Upon being released from prison for a crime that is later revealed, Percy (short for Perchance) decides to move to the small town of Gilead based solely on the photo of the fall colors along the creek she finds in a newspaper, and the desire to make a fresh start somewhere new. Local Sheriff Joe acts as her parole officer and sets her up with a room and a job at the Spitfire Grill, run by Hannah, who begrudgingly agrees. Percy also meets Hannah's nephew Caleb and his wife Shelby, and mail carrier/town busybody Effy. She soon learns that small-town life is not as idyllic as that newspaper photo makes it out to be, with residents suffering from grief, abuse, and the longing to get out. But Percy also learns, perhaps for the first time in her life, what it is to be part of a community, to be needed, to experience trust and friendship. As is often the case in these fish-out-of-water stories, Percy is the catalyst for change in this community that has been stuck in a rut for too long.*

Katherine Fried and the cast of The Spitfire Grill
(photo courtesy of Ten Thousand Things)
Artistic Director Marcela Lorca, who is leaving TTT after this season, co-directs the piece with Michelle O'Neill, and they've infused it with a sense of playfulness, but also allowing the pathos of the story, so gorgeously rendered in music, to come through. They've assembled just the best possible cast (as always at TTT). Katherine Fried (who was the Music Director for TTT's last show) is a revelation as Percy. Her voice sounds so clear and pure, soaring out through the space unamplified, with interesting phrasing, and such raw emotion that it brought tears to my eyes more than once. Even when not singing, she beautifully embodies the tough young woman fresh from prison, with all her walls up, but slowly allowing people in. Michelle Barber is a delight as Hannah, tough but with a spark in her eye, and a hidden hurt. TTT favorite George Keller provides some necessary comic relief as the town busybody, steaming open everyone's mail. Katie Bradley is lovely as the timid Shelby, finding her strength through her friendship with Percy. Even Tom Reed can't make the overbearing Caleb likable, although he does have a hint at redemption toward the end, and his song "Digging Stone" echos current discussions around masculinity. Last but not least, Dominic Shiro is a charming Joe, making his professional theater debut in a TTT show.

The story and character development are told largely through music. And my favorite kind of music at that - a sort of folky/Americana, mixed with some Broadway sound.* This is also Resident Music Director Peter Vitale's last show with TTT, and he's going out on a high note. The stripped down band provides just enough support for the vocals, with Peter on keyboard and other instruments, and Tyson Forbes on violin and guitar (as well as playing a small but pivotal role). The harmonies created by this cast in this intimate space are just gorgeous.

The minimal set and props (designed by Sarah Agnew and Nick Golfis) include a sign for the Grill, a few small tables (that get spruced up in the second act), and a kitchen counter full of noise-making equipment. Hallways, staircases, and windows are hinted at by wooden poles manipulated gracefully and inventively by the cast (with movement designed by Jim Lichtscheidl). Samantha Fromm Haddow's costumes evoke the rural Midwest, with lots of plaid and denim, and more costume changes than usual for a TTT show, marking the passage of time.

The Spitfire Grill reminds me a little of one of my favorite musicals Violet**, and that's a very good thing. Both feature Americana music and a small cast and band, and tell the story of a young woman on a quest to heal her past and make a new start for a better future, positively affecting those she meets along the way. This is a story of friendship, of healing, of second chances, of community, of forgiveness. In this cynical time, it is indeed a balm to escape for a few hours into the simpler world of Gilead, where there are troubles aplenty, but where hard work, friendship, and community offer a chance for hope and healing.*

*Some text borrowed from my review of the 2015 Lyric Arts production.

**I am very excited that Violet is part of Ten Thousand Things' next season. I only hope they're able to license the Off-Broadway version instead of the Broadway version (read my thoughts on that here).