The Spitfire Grill is an unusual musical in many ways. From the opening sequence, the audience quickly learns the method of storytelling is less than traditional. Told mostly through a stream of consciousness musical soliloquies, The Spitfire Grill is sung with a rustic folk patter. The unique melodies pull the listeners to really tune in and focus on the experiences of the characters rather than the physical action. This results in a heavily character and actor-driven show, which is sometimes lost in the large auditorium.
The small intimate show, with a cast of only seven, sometimes struggles to fill the space with the charm and energy that is very present. And while the well constructed and detailed set, designed by the director himself (Ken Clark), superbly localizes the musical in the quaint setting, the personal stories are washed out in the large venue. Despite this disadvantage, the Hawthorne Players bring out a beautiful story filled with grief, struggle, and ultimately hope.
The story follows Percy Talbott (Stefanie Kluba) leaving prison and making a new life for herself in the quiet, small town of Gilead, Wisconsin. Her parole officer Sheriff Joe Sutter (Colin Down) helps her get a job at the Spitfire Grill under the watch of its owner Hannah Ferguson (Kathy Fugate). When Hannah breaks a leg, her nephew Caleb (Danny Brown) pushes for the sale of the grill again, but Hannah ultimately decides to leave Percy in charge with the help of Caleb’s wife Shelby (Melanie Kozak). Percy suggests that to help sell the grill, Hannah should hold an essay contest. Hannah agrees and much to their surprise, the letters pour in by the wheelbarrow. As they continue to run the grill and sort out the many letters, the past hurts of each character start to unravel and shine through their walled exteriors leading to heartbreaks and friendships.
The small cast provides rich characterization of these unique characters. Director Ken Clark helps pull genuine human pain and joy from his actors. Kluba does a solid job leading the show as the steel shelled Percy, carefully treading the line between course and gruff with ease. With a strong delivery, Kathy Fugate delivers the best performance of the night, who’s acting style is reminiscent of Kathy Bates. Fugate guides the show with a wounded matriarchal spirit and provides a haunting delivery of her solo “Forgotten Lullaby”. Melanie Kozak’s song “Wild Bird” is fitting as it draws up her poise and style exactly. From her first entrance, the energy shifts on stage and her voice stirs with fluttering grace. Providing much needed comedic relief during the heavy story, Trish Nelke plays a snooping postmistress with uncanny realness, earning several laughs from the audience.
The four women do an excellent job providing a female-driven show, which is always refreshing (with most plays tending to be heavily male roles). Of course, the men in this show round out the cast well and compliment the women with support, base, and bass. Colin Dowd plays an affable sheriff, revealing a sweet tenor singing voice. And Danny Brown acts as an antagonist with a strong overbearing patriarchal presence. The Spitfire Grill displays intricate melodies expertly driven by music director Ike Eichenberger. While the voices were sometimes lacking in confidence and power, the passion remained, and tight harmonies placed throughout the score really shine through and pull at the audience’s hearts.
One of the strongest aspects of the show is its aesthetics. The set design (Ken Clark) follows a rich composition that is rich with details allowing the dusty seclusive town to shine with charm. Costumer Jean Heckman clothes the actors naturally and seamlessly, allowing them to blend into their surroundings, and help convey the passage of time. While simple, the lighting washes the stage in soft warmth, and be sure to watch for designer Eric Wennlund’s lush display of color during a scene in Act 2.
It is a risk to produce a lesser-known musical, especially one with a unique narrative style, but it is a risk that I commend and champion. These kind of bold choices are what makes theatre special, diverse, and growing. Ultimately, The Spitfire Grill and its characters resemble an unpolished gem. While it may be coarse, dirty, and unrefined, below the surface there is beauty. And like all gems, it is one of a kind. The Spitfire Grill is playing at the Florissant Civic Center (1 Civic Center Dr. Florrisant, MO) for only two more performances: November 11 at
7:30 and November 12 at 2:00. Tickets are $20 adults, $18 seniors/students; $15 groups of six or more. Call 314-921-5678 to order tickets or go online at www.HawthornePlayers.com.