By Eric Karas
Lots of musicals are based on movies these days. Many elicit the ‘why does this exist?’ rhetorical question or, even worse, are seen as an obvious, cynical money grab based on a title.
The Spitfire Grill,on the other hand, feels authentic from beginning to end, with something to say about human connections and appreciating the beauty all around of us. American Blues Theater presents this fine musical based on the 1996 film of the same name. In it, a woman is released from prison and winds up in the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin looking for a new beginning. She winds up working at a diner run by an older gruff woman which changes their lives and those of everyone in the diner.
The music by James Valcq and lyrics by Fred Alley keep us in the place and time. Their book moves quickly while building on it’s theme. The song “Ice and Snow” has a sequence about feeling like winter will never end, to which every Chicagoan will relate.
The cast is a knockout here. Jacquelyne Jones as the parolee Percy gives the right amount of vulnerability and hardness. Jones has a great voice and can really belt out emotionally when it calls for it. Catherine Smitko as Hannah, the older woman, walks right out of real life. Not a false moment from her.
Gabrielle Lott-Rogers is really terrific as the town gossip. She brings humor to the role without relinquishing it to stereotype. You know she’s talking about people, but ultimately she loves them all. Karl Hamilton as Hannah’s protective nephew really brings home the frustration of being in a town that was once successful but now going through hard times. Dara Cameron as his put-upon wife who finds her independence really does an excellent job. She not only nails the role, but she’s a terrific singer. The duets Cameron shared with Jones are worth the price of admission. So, too, Donterrio Johnson as the sheriff gets opportunities to show off his vocal prowess. And Ian Paul Cluster does the most with a thankless role that’s necessary to the plot.
The scenic design by Sarah E. Ross really works well in a small space. The wooden cut-out design gives audiences the feeling of being in the woods and a rural area. Lily Grace Walls‘ costumes are so appropriate that they certainly don’t ’t feel like costumes at all. Director Tammy Mader keeps the cast moving along at a terrific pace, and Malcolm Ruhl’s musical direction makes the music soar.
The Spitfire Grill is a musical worthy of your time, and American Blues Theater’s cast is perfectly suited to deliver its emotion. Take a trip to Gilead Wisconsin at Stage 773.
American Blues Theater presents “The Spitfire Grill” at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Michael Brosilow.