Leslie Cao and Marja Barger in The Spitfire Grill, presented by Four Seasons Theatre with Madison Theatre Guild.
Watching The Spitfire Grill is like reading a small town newspaper, if you can manage to find one these days. It's quaint and a little unpolished, but there's something so genuine that it nearly breaks your heart. Coproduced by Four Seasons Theatre and Madison Theatre Guild and presented at the Bartell Theatre, this musical isn't perfect -- on opening night, vocal performances were hit or miss -- but it's good in a way that is nourishing.
Based on a 1996 film, The Spitfire Grill takes place in the fictional town of Gilead. While Gilead might be tough to find on a map, references to Mineral Point and Dodgeville ground the action in the southwestern Wisconsin. As a native of Mount Horeb, Fred Alley, who created the musical version of Spitfire with James Valcq, knew this part of the state well. Tragically, just before Spitfire was about to open off-Broadway in 2001, Alley died of a heart attack while jogging. He was only 38. His Wisconsin roots and love for the outdoors live on in this production.
Spitfire tells the tale of Percy Talbot. Fresh out of jail, she shows up in the middle of the night in Gilead looking for a fresh start. "A place for leaving, not for coming to," Gilead's not much more than an old café and a post office, but Percy's determined to make it home. As she forces her way into the lives of the townspeople, she ends up finding her way into their hearts.
As Percy, Sarah C. O'Hara is perfectly cast and costumed -- her cropped red hair is a fitting look for a woman looking to leave her past behind. She's very focused in her performance. She has palpable onstage chemistry with complicated Hannah Ferguson (Marja Barger), the owner of the Spitfire Grill, and with submissive Shelby (Christine Callsen). Costumed in what can only be described as mom jeans, Leslie Cao gets some hearty laughs as gossipy Effy, and handsome Jordan Peterson is delightful as Sheriff Joe.
Spitfire is heavy on music. The most memorable songs are the upbeat numbers. The small orchestra provides accompaniment, with an interesting combination of instruments including accordion and mandolin. In "Ice and Snow," winter supplies -- sidewalk salt, a shovel, and an axe -- are used as percussive instruments, and "Shoot the Moon" is an animated little tune that gets Shelby and Percy doing a silly jig, the only dancing in the show.
The grump in me has to confess that Spitfire gets a little schmaltzy at moments. In "Shine," Percy extends her hands (think jazz hands) beneath a golden spotlight, and in "Colors of Paradise," the women seem happy in a way that's only possible in infomercials. Still -- and I can't quite explain it -- the cheesiness is endearing. After all, we Wisconsinites love cheese, don't we?
Heartwarming and sentimental, The Spitfire Grill is a great holiday show to see with family or friends. But be careful: its charming depiction of small town life might have you packing your bags for Gilead, wherever that may be.