Playwright: James Valcq and Fred Alley, based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff
At: American Blues Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: $19-49; stage773.com/showspitfiregrill. Runs through: Aug. 17
Female-driven musicals are still a rarity. The climate is changing with the successes of shows like Waitress, The Prom and Six ( the latter is now headed to Broadway in 2020 ), but the demand for rich female characters and stories remains.
The Spitfire Grill is not driven by one woman, but threeeach with her own demons and triumphs and eventually, a shared goal. American Blues Theater's production tends to rush the dramatic moments in the name of tight pacing, but the stunning vocals and complex storyline make for a pleasant yet empowering night at the theater.
Based on the 1996 film of the same name, The Spitfire Grill opens with Percy Talbott ( Jacquelyne Jones ) arriving in Gilead, Wisconsin after five years of incarceration. Sheriff Joe Sutter ( Donterrio Johnson ), also Percy's parole officer, is confused as to why anyone would willingly move to such a tiny town. Percy quickly finds a job at the Spitfire Grillthe only restaurant in townand a boss/landlady in tough-as-nails Hannah Ferguson ( Catherine Smitko ), as well as a friend in Hannah's niece-in-law Shelby ( Dara Cameron ). The three cook up a scheme to unload the restaurant that's been on the market for 10 years, but soon enough, each woman will be forced to confront her past, present and future.
In the world of Gilead ( thankfully very different from the Gilead of The Handmaid's Tale ), men are almost inconsequential, relegated to good guys or buffoons ( the latter is Hannah's nephew and Shelby's husband Caleb, played by Karl Hamilton ). There's a romantic subplot, but it pales in comparison to the three women's journeys, both individual and collective. Percy is running away from a troubled, violent family dynamic, while Shelby struggles to find her voice in a controlling marriage. Meanwhile, Hannah must contend with a broken leg and the memories of a son who disappeared long ago. James Valcq and Fred Alley's country-western score deftly conveys every complex emotion, from longstanding grief to pure and unadulterated joy, and illustrates both major and minor characters with nuance.
Where this Spitfire Grill falls down is in the pacing. Director Tammy Mader keeps the production moving at exactly two hours counting intermission, but at the expense of the dramatic reveals, many of which occur in the show's second half. Mader is skilled in characterization but seems afraid to let actors and audience alike take a breath and absorb the characters' words and actions. It's a shame, because the seven-member ensemble bring their best work to the stage, especially Jones as ex-con Percy. Her range is astounding, her lyrical interpretation intelligent and down-home, and her struggles real. If it weren't for The Spitfire Grill's somewhat hasty delivery, American Blues Theatre would have a gem on its hands. Instead, it's just this shy of perfect.