by Tony Schillaci and Don Church
photo by Ruth Tefft
Songs of hopefulness, encouragement and renewal tell how a stranger helps to transform a depressed town, its inhabitants and herself for the better in “The Spitfire Grill,” a wholly American musical that plays at the Spirit of Broadway Theater (SBT) in downtown Norwich through September 27.
Its heroine, Percy Talbott, beautifully acted and sung by Dana DellaMonica, is paroled after five years in prison to a small town that she saw in a travel magazine.
Gilead, Wisconsin is in reality an economically battered town that has lost it hopes for a brighter future. Percy’s presence leads to uplifting changes in the lives and attitudes of most of the townspeople, especially Hannah, the tough-as-nails-heart-of-tarnished-gold owner of The Spitfire Grill.
As the play unfolds, each character has an opportunity to tell their respective tale more in song than dialog. The folksy music and provocative and revealing lyrics swiftly move along this touching story of renewal. It has just the right amount of humor that bubbles out of the situations and the characters to make it all so human – a truly rewarding night at the theater for audiences of all ages.
Dana (Percy) and Nicole Marion (Shelby) treat the audience to beautiful vocal gifts when they duet in “The Colors Of Paradise,” and in solos – “When Hope Goes” (Shelby) and “A Ring Around The Moon” (Percy).
Patti McClure (who just completed playing the title role in the national tour of “The Drowsy Chaperone”) gives her heart and soul to the part of Hannah. She practically steals the show with her superb performance, including the rousing, uplifting ensemble numbers “Something’s Cooking At The Spitfire Grill,” and the show-stopping first-act finale, “Shoot The Moon.” She does the same with the second-act opening.
The show’s major comic relief is offered in the characterization of Effy, the town gossip and postmistress, skillfully performed by Heather Ruley who plays the troublemaker with just enough vulnerability to delight the audience – the pest you love to hate. And her vocalization in the ensemble numbers is pure and memorable.
Of the three male cast members, only David E. Meyers as The Visitor does not sing; his silence speaks volumes and touches your heart in unexpected ways.
John Marion (Caleb) laments his job loss and hopelessness about his future prospects in “Digging Stone.” John has gotten better and better in every performance he’s done at The Spirit of Broadway.
Sheriff Joe Sutter is sung and played refreshingly by Randy Taylor. At last, a sheriff in a small town who isn’t a jerk! His “Forest for the Trees” solo and his duet with Percy, “These Wide Woods,” are the “there’s no place like home” anthems of the piece.
The music and book is by James Valcq; lyrics and book by Fred Alley. It was nominated for many major awards Off-Broadway and at regional theaters around the country.
Founding Artistic Director Brett Bernardini has done it again as producer, director and now musical director – on piano and keyboard – for this show. His always brilliant blocking and getting outstanding performances from his actors ensures consistently exciting shows at SBT.
Brett’s set design, coupled with Ruth Tefft’s costumes and Glenn Michaud’s lighting design make the town and inhabitants of Gilead come alive in imaginative and believable ways.
The sole criticism is that we did not get to applaud the wonderful musicians: Gus Guastamachio on percussion, Jan Zacharski on violin, Tim Maynard on guitar, Celeste Cumming on cello and director Brett Bernardini, a piano virtuoso. Although unseen, these performers deserved to take their bows with the rest of the talented folks at “The Spitfire Grill.”
The Spirit of Broadway Theater, 24 Chestnut Street, down the hill from Norwich town hall. Tickets: (860) 886-2378. www.spiritofbroadway.org. Plenty of free parking.