by Otto Coelho
Community. Family. Support. Love. These are basic human needs, and they are central to the plot of “The Spitfire Grill,” currently running at the South Bay Musical Theatre in Saratoga. A young woman, recently released from prison, travels to Gilead, Wisconsin—a place she’s never been to. She has just seen pictures in an old magazine in the prison library. When she gets there, she finds that the place has changed a bit since those pictures were taken. The place has hit the skids a bit, and the owner of the titular Spitfire Grill—which seems to be the hub of the goings on in town—has been trying to sell the place for ten years. Hopefully the old spiritual is right, and there is a balm in this Gilead to make the wounded whole and heal the sin-sick soul. And there appear to be plenty of wounded and sin-sick here.
The women of the cast offer the strongest performances in the piece. Kate Matheson plays the former convict Percy with great depth and a fine singing voice, but sounds better in duet and trio. Laura Barragán is fabulous as the downtrodden Shelby. She has a strong and lovely voice, and when she and Matheson harmonize, it’s magic. Juliet Green has a nice turn as Hannah, owner of the Spitfire Grill. From the beginning, we get the sense of something deep troubling her—more than being unable to unload her business. She’s terrific with a lovely voice—and as before, she’s great in trio with Barragán and Matheson. Mary Melnick is hilariously annoying as town busybody Effy. She wonderfully blends the sensibilities of Gladys Kravitz and one of the gossipy “Pick-A-Little” ladies from “The Music Man.”
Director and choreographer Sara K. Dean directs her cast with an emotionally steady hand, though at times there were traffic problems with the ensemble’s entrances—they just didn’t seem organic. The choreography of the dance numbers left me wanting a bit as well. Deborah Lambert’s musical and vocal direction was good, but I was confused. The orchestra was not seen from the audience, and sometimes the orchestra vamped excessively during the dialogue within musical numbers—so much so the singers were left waiting to continue. It really negatively impacted the pacing. I had the impression that they were performing to a pre-recorded track (they may have been, though when the audience was exiting a keyboardist could be seen on the monitor on the back wall of the house. Richard Cartwright’s minimalist sets work for the most part, though they seemed less workable in some configurations—and it puzzled me that when there seemed to be plenty of room onstage, the front table was set so close to the counter than everyone passing between them had to squeeze a bit. All they needed to do was set the table a foot stage left. Edward Hunter’s lighting worked well. Lisa Rohman’s costumes were good for the most part, though some costume choices didn’t make sense. (For instance why, in a show set in 1985, does a young sheriff in uniform wear a black fedora?) A minor point, but it threw things off for me.
In all, a good effort. “The Spitfire Grill” is a show filled with hope, and full of characters seeking home, faith, community, and love. And when you get right down to it, aren’t we all?
“The Spitfire Grill” continues at the Saratoga Musical Theatre February 18. For more information, click here.
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“The Spitfire Grill” Music and Book by James Valcq. Lyrics and Book by Fred Alley. Produced by South Bay Musical Theatre. Director & Choreographer: Sara K. Dean. Scenic Designer: Richard Cartwright. Costume Designer: Lisa Rozman. Hair & Makeup Designer: Melissa Jones. Lighting Designer: Edward Hunter. Musical & Vocal Director: Deborah Lambert. Props Designers: Michael Johnson, Jay Steele. Projection Designer: Sara K. Dean. Sound Designer: Dan Singletary.
Percy: Kate Matheson. Hannah: Juliet Green. Shelby: Laura Barragán. Joe: Charles Anthony. Caleb: Zach Goller. Effy: Mary Melnick. The Visitor: Tomás-Julian Eredia. Ensemble: Carmela Catoc, Joseph Cloward, Hannah Cole, Allyson Dudzinski, Cordelia Larsen, Corinna Laskin, Jackson Paddock, Gloria Garcia Stanley