John Cougar Mellencamp sang that he could breathe in a small town, and it seems that Willows Theatre artistic director Richard Elliott feels much the same way. A quick glance over the company's past several seasons reveals that it often chooses plays that are either set in small towns, or feature heroes from small towns who embody good-spirited wholesomeness. As Elliott says in the director's notes for his current production of The Spitfire Grill,
"I am far more uplifted and invigorated by the strength a community, like that found in small-town America, can muster when it works together to bring about a common good."
The musical stage version of The Spitfire Grill, then, makes perfect sense for the Willows. Adapted from the nonmusical film of the same name, the story follows a mysterious, presumably urban, young woman fresh out of prison. She's heading to a small town in Wisconsin called Gilead, seeking a balm for her battered spirit. She wants to see the autumn leaves change in a town where everyone knows everyone else and is loving and kind. Once she gets to Gilead, she wreaks surprising, positive change in the townspeople and the life of the community, laying her own demons to rest in the process. The town gossip, the shy housewife, the restless sheriff, the stranger running around in the woods, the old woman who hides her sadness behind a biting wit -- all have a lesson to learn from this unlikely teacher, a "Wild Bird" who has overcome a horrible past without losing her ability to "Shine" or see the "Colors of Paradise," as the songs go.
It's been said that in theater there are two basic plots: Either someone leaves home or a stranger comes to town, and this one falls squarely into the second category with a thud. A stranger comes to town and through some strange magic transforms everything she touches. It's really not clear what magic Percy possesses. Although she's full of joy and innocence in her secret thoughts (expressed through overlong songs such as "A Ring Around the Moon," which takes us all the way from prison to Gilead via bus and thus feels like it will never end), her exterior is often sullen and argumentative. When she takes over operation of the Grill after her employer has broken a hip and nearly poisons the customers, it makes even less sense. Fortunately, other people come to her aid, and things start to look up. Perhaps Percy's magic lies in the fact that in helping her, other people find their best selves. Together with the easily spooked Shelby, Percy comes up with a scheme to save the Grill by holding a contest to give it away in a raffle, and soon envelopes are pouring in from all over the country, full of letters from other people who believe that moving out of the cold, evil cities where they currently suffer will magically transform their lives as well.
While I clearly I had a very different reaction than the rest of the audience the night I went, I really don't think this production hits the mark, either by itself or in comparison with the excellent Man of La Mancha, which opened the company's season. It's not all the fault of the Willows. As Elliott notes, this play may be a fable and not a realistic story, but it trades in a disingenuous fantasy, setting up the cobwebby inhuman city/humane small town dichotomy because it's easy. Cities may be cold and evil, but they can also be havens of comfort and tolerance for people who are in some way unusual.
The plot points are also easy. Although this prompted the VideoHound movie guide to say of the film version that it's "not so bad that you'll yell at the screen," it's also not particularly fresh or surprising. Every time the authors could have made a daring choice -- having Shelby leave her apparently abusive husband, for example -- they chose instead to take the path of least resistance. The overall effect is so predictable that we really don't need to be told who the stranger running around in the woods is (and in this production, it's a shame to use the sonorous Jeff Lowe in a nonspeaking role). The most daring choice was to recast this story as a musical. But the music isn't especially noteworthy and the lyrics are uninspired. Murphy Hart Rowan, who plays the shivering housewife whom Percy coaxes out of her shell, has the most beautiful voice of the cast, yet other than moments in "Wild Bird" I found myself wishing she'd been given something better to sing. Ditto Jon Marshall as Sheriff Joe (Marshall, a powerful singer, is known to Willows regulars as the young John Muir) who does his best with poignant pieces such as "Forest for the Trees."
Which brings us to the actors, all of who are working very hard with material that isn't necessarily suited to their gifts. Nina Auslander (Percy) was a lot of fun as the strange teenager in Vampires and as part of Medea's chorus, but doesn't yet seem to have the chops to carry a show like this. While she captures Percy's volatility well and her singing is fine, her accent is all over the map. I suspect that Elliott encourages his actors to "act to the back row," sacrificing subtlety for clarity; I've seen Auslander (as well as some of the others) deliver much more delicate, finely wrought performances outside of the Willows.
The actors do pull out some nice moments, notably Percy's first morning as a short-order cook (stand back and watch the batter fly!) and the song "Ice and Snow," in which three characters rattle or bang various implements against the floor, Stomp-style, to keep time as they sing about the change of seasons -- tire chains, a snow shovel, a rake, and so on. The relationship between Percy and Shelby, the bitter and the beaten, is allowed to develop in a satisfying way. And it's fun to fantasize along with the letter-writers about what one might do with their own hometown diners.
The Spitfire Grill saw its New York premiere in September 2001, where it won audience and critic hearts for its soothing quality and gentle, predictable story. If warm and safe (though unrealistic) is what you're after, Grill will do it for you. If, like me, you can't breathe in a small town, hang tight for next month's Meshuggah-Nuns!
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