By James Valcq
Performed by Cathy Elliot, Josh Epstein, Todd Harrop, Corrine Koslo, Joe Matheson, Heather McGuigan, Amy Walsh
Directed by Robert McQueen
Musical Director Andrew Petrasiunas
Grand Theatre, London
March 13 to 31, 2007
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
Giving Back Love to Small Town Life
The female cast members overwhelm the stage in The Spitfire Grill, the current production at London’s Grand Theatre. Fresh out of women’s prison, Percy ends up in the unlikely town of Gilead, Wisconsin, where she takes a job in the area’s only restaurant, the Spitfire Grill. The run-down diner is operated by Hannah, who’s tired of the constant work and the same old crowd. When Hannah’s hip gives out, Percy has to take over the kitchen, and Shelby, the wife of Hannah’s nephew Caleb, is recruited to help serve. They struggle on, and eventually get into the rhythm of the diner, much to the chagrin of the town busybody and postmistress Effy.
Hannah wants to sell the Spitfire Grill, but nephew Caleb, bitter about losing his job at the quarry, isn’t very successful at real estate sales, either. Joe, the sheriff, is also Percy’s parole officer, and like everyone else in town, he’s depressed over the failing economy and dying spirit in Gilead. Percy and Shelby come up with the idea of raffling off the Spitfire Grill and organize a contest. They advertise the competition and mail starts pouring in from all over – people writing letters about why they’d like to win the diner, and sending in $100 entry fee. Slowly the dejected feeling in the Spitfire Grill starts to fade, as they hear from so many people who want to make Gilead their home. The townspeople start sprucing things up when they learn that newcomers might be moving in. The story becomes one of friendship and love and what those feelings can do to improve the surroundings.
At only 24 years old, Heather McGuigan is excellent as tough girl Percy. Her soaring voice is perfect for belting out the beautiful music, and her acting skills in playing the hardened ex-con are perfect for the part. As the show progresses, we watch Percy grow and evolve, just like the town around her. McGuigan takes the character from being suspicious and defensive to slowly letting her guard down and opening up to friendship.
McGuigan is joined by Amy Walsh as Shelby. Walsh, too, has a remarkable voice that resonates through the beautiful songs. Walsh is recognizable from her many roles in musicals at the Stratford Festival and Huron Country Playhouse. Like McGuigan, she, too, takes her character through a metamorphosis, changing from a mousy housewife, to a woman who can make her own decisions.
Cathy Elliot is excellent as the aging Hannah, her deeper voice in perfect harmony with McGuigan and Walsh. As mentor to Percy and Shelby, Hannah mellows as the story progresses.
Corrine Koslo plays the postmistress and local gossip Effy Krayneck (Love the name – she is constantly stretching her neck to overhear everyone else’s conversations.) Koslo adds the comic relief. She can’t understand why the Spitfire Grill is suddenly getting handfuls of mail. Next day, her shoulder bag is full of letters for the Spitfire. Then she brings the house down, when she staggers in pushing a wheelbarrow filled with bags of mail. In one song, she belts out all the names of the cities on the postmarks that the letters bear. One letter is all the way from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which makes for great song lyrics. Effy is delighted to point out that it has insufficient postage!
Josh Epstein is good as Sheriff Joe Sutter and Joe Matheson, just finishing his run of playing the narrator in For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, handles the role of Caleb very well. Todd Harrop is also good as the visitor.
On a couple of occasions, the author asks us to suspend belief, which was a bit disrupting in an otherwise reality-based, slice-of-life story. First, it’s difficult to accept the whole notion of raffling off the restaurant. And it’s too trite and too easy for the sheriff just to say that it’s all legal. Secondly, it’s hard to accept that a mother would set out a loaf of bread for her son every night, knowing that he’s living in the woods and not try to contact him for 20 years. The story needs more explanation to make it plausible. Yet the plot is interesting and the lyrics and music appealing.
With four women who are all strong actors handling fascinating roles, and all blessed with powerful voices, The Spitfire Grill belongs to them. Director Robert McQueen does an excellent job of bringing out their evolution of spirit, and Musical Director Andrew Petrasiunas allows their solos to soar, and then blending the voices in perfect harmony at other times.
The Spitfire Grill continues at the Grand Theatre in London until March 31. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593.