By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Based on the 1996 movie, The Spitfire Grill serves up theatrical comfort food set to a pleasant, bluegrassy score by James Valcq and Fred Alley. The six-voice, seven-character musical, now running at Addison's WaterTower Theatre, is as warm and wholesome as a plate of home-cooked meat loaf and gravy. Predictable, sure 'nuf, but in a way that nourishes and satisfies.
Lead character Percy Talbott (played by Jennifer Green) is a young ex-con, paroled after a five-year stretch for a crime we learn later she was justified in committing. Entranced by a travel-book photograph of autumn foliage in a small Wisconsin village, Percy goes there hoping to discover paradise and inner peace. Instead, she finds Gilead in a world of hurt. The rock quarry has shut down, Main Street is boarded up and the only cafe is a white elephant whose "For Sale" sign has rusted for lack of interest. Hannah Ferguson (Pam Dougherty), the curmudgeonly owner and cook at the Spitfire Grill, reluctantly gives Percy a job and a spare room, but little hope of much else.
Gilead's other residents likewise dwell in the slough of despond. Caleb and Shelby Thorpe (Ron Gonzalez, Dara Whitehead) are a troubled young couple on the verge of divorce. Effy Krayneck (Sara Shelby-Martin), postmaster, editor and all-around busybody, is threatened by the newcomer. She regards Percy's arrival the way she might a skunk at a Sunday social. Laid-back, lonely Sheriff Joe Sutter (Theo Wischhusen) is waiting to inherit acreage he can sell to fund his escape from the one-horse town. The mysterious "Visitor" (Ted Wold), a mute homeless man who lives in the woods, creeps out only at night to retrieve loaves of bread Hannah leaves by the woodpile out back. His relationship to her becomes evident all too soon.
This downer stuff goes over the rainbow in Act 2, of course. Percy and Shelby think of a surefire scheme to get the Spitfire sold. Sheriff Joe starts to show more than a lawman's interest in the pretty parolee. Hannah is reunited with a long-lost relative. Autumn arrives, prettier than the picture Percy stared at behind bars. Her dream of a new life in a new town comes true. At last, a soothing balm sweeps over Gilead.
It's nigh unto impossible to resist the formulaic sweetness of Spitfire.The story line and the polished, 15-song score flow seamlessly. Most of the plot turns are revealed through the songs, which suffer from a sameness of tune and tempo but nevertheless are easy on the ear. With a lesser cast, Spitfire might sputter under its own moist sentimentality. But the WaterTower actors, all blessed with terrific voices, deliver gourmet performances of the meat-and-potatoes material.
With little dialogue to move things along, these performers have to act while they sing, from the slapstick comedy of Percy's sloppy kitchen skills in "Out of the Frying Pan" to the wistful sadness of Hannah's ballad "Forgotten Lullaby,'' about the son she lost in Vietnam. Intriguingly, the only real love song in the piece, Act 2's "Wild Bird," is sung between two women, Percy and Shelby, though there's no hint of Sapphic love in their shared well of loneliness. Their voices also blend beautifully in the soaring anthem "The Colors of Paradise."
The fine acting and clear, folksy voice of Jennifer Green make Percy lovable and memorable. Green, a high school drama teacher in Mesquite, is a newcomer to Dallas theater. Leave it to WaterTower, always a destination for Dallas' best actors, to find such a fresh, promising talent and to take a chance on casting her in the lead of the first big show of the year. Under the direction of James Paul Lemons, Green never lets her performance get too big. Her Percy arrives burdened by disappointments, recoiling from human contact. Gradually, she blossoms, but Green keeps Percy vulnerable, wary, easily bruised. After she breaks down toward the end and reveals to Hannah and the others the real reason for her imprisonment, Green cries real tears. The work she does in Spitfire is mature and impressive, but it probably shows off half of what she's capable of as a singer and actress. She's amazing.
It's always fun to see how WaterTower reconfigures its acting space with each new production. This time scenic designer Clare Floyd Devries has created a detailed diorama that spans the full width of the theater. From the well-worn counter and tables at the diner, characters step through a gazebo, across a little crick (complete with cattails and live fish) and into a rocky clearing leading to dark woods. The audience faces each other from both sides of the set, a cozy arrangement for an intimate show. Musical director and pianist Mark Mullino and his three excellent musicians--Lee Harris on keyboard, George Gagliardi on guitar, Dave Yonley on fiddle--are hidden somewhere upstream.
With its emphasis on storytelling through singing, The Spitfire Grill comes close to being a little opera. And come to think of it, there's no dancing at all in this musical, unless you count the happy little steps the audience members seem to do as they try to come down to earth when it's all over.