‘The Spitfire Grill’ at Colonial Players by Amanda Gunther

Overal Rating: 6
The Colonial Players presents the musical version of the 1996 film The Spitfire Grill with a toe-tapping and melodic score by James Valcq, and with a book by Fred Alley. Mr. Valc and Mr. Alley also co-wrote the lyrics.

Hannah (Jill Sharpe Compton) Shelby (Sandra Rardon) and Percy (Karen Grim). Photo courtesy of Colonial Players.

Set in the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin, it’s a musical with a bluegrass feel where the quarry has closed down and the only thing that passes through is gossip. That is until a young woman fresh out of prison shows up to start her new life in the town. News travels fast as she picks up a job at the local – the only grill in town. It’s an upbeat tale of starting over and how the color of paradise really can be found in a tiny town if you look closely enough.

It is a tremendous undertaking to produce a musical with only six characters and then cast actors who have limited vocal abilities. Songs that were written with two and three-part harmonies didn’t sound as beautiful as they should have – and produced some trying times because the show has a gorgeous score that deserves talented singers to perform it. This was so unfortunate because the ‘lead’ – Percy (Karen Grim) – sang and acted her role so beautifully. That said – the entire cast acted their roles with conviction.

Director Joan Townshend and Musical Director Anita O’Connor worked together to create the homey intimate nature of this little one-blink town and it showed through in the well executed character relationships. Percy shows a great awkwardness with a tough outer skin upon her arrival, snapping at the Sheriff (Eric Hufford) and trying to mind her mouth around Hannah (Jill Sharpe Compton). The show opens with a harrowing soulful number where Grim is singing alone in pitch black darkness and then is highlighted in a tight spotlight as she continues to sing “A Ring Around The Moon.” Lighting Designer Harvey Hack really creates a clear distinguishing moment with this choice at the beginning of the show. Hack’s work throughout helped to distinguish morning from evening and indoors from outdoors on the simplistic set.

Grim continued to impress the audience with her racy spitfire tune “Out Of The Frying Pan,” an up-tempo number that has a lot of quick words and well-timed jokes which Grim annunciated clearly and sang strongly. As a character- she grew tremendously throughout the show, letting her outer attitude mellow as she grew more comfortable with the tiny town and the tiny town grew more comfortable with her. Grim has a stunning solo late in act two which really shows her full vocal talent – “Shine” – and she truly does.

Sheriff Joe (Eric Hufford), Effy (Jean Berard), Hannah (Jill Sharpe Compton), and Percy (Karen Grim). Photo courtesy of Colonial Players.

Because the show does not use microphones – and when the characters are singing with their backs to the audience in some places – as it is set in-the-round – the lyrics get lost. This happened numerous times with Shelby (Sandra Rardon) especially when she was singing “Wild Bird.” This along with the loud soundtrack really detracted from the story because most of it was told through song. I’ve never seen in-the-round staging work against a cast before, but here it did. It was unfortunate.

There was a really playful nature among the characters, Hannah especially. As the grandma figure it was truly hysterical to watch her tell-off the town gossip, Effy (Jean Berard) and put the nosy woman in her place. Berard was equally comical with her nose in everyone’s business, really making that extra effort to get up in everyone’s faces to really make her character stand out. Unfortunately her singing was on par with everyone else in the show, really off-key and hard to hear in many of her songs, especially the trio “Ice and Snow” with Caleb (Lawrence Griffin) and Joe.

There’s a ‘spitfire’ of a performance at Colonial Players being given by Karen Grim, and I highly recommend that you make the trip to Annapolis to see her burn up the stage.

Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.

The Spitfire Grill plays through April 21, 2012 at The Colonial Players – 108 East Street, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 268-7373, or purchase them online.

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