American Blues Theater Presents THE SPITFIRE GRILL Review – Sentimental, Sweet, RECOMMENDED Best Play Pick musical, Thru August 17, 2019
With her strong voice with that familiar country music singer twang, actress Jacquelyne Jones as Percy Talbot brings us into this story with song. She is in a jail cell dreaming of getting out—with her heart set on a small town that yearly explodes with gorgeous autumn foliage. She knows nothing else about this town, Gilead, but once sprung from prison makes her way to this almost ghost town.
In short order Percy knows all there are to know- the nosy post office manager Effy Kayneck (played by Gabrielle Lott Rogers), the sheriff (played by Donterrio Johnson), the Thorpes (Shelby played by Dara Cameron and Caleb played by Karl Hamilton), and the owner of the title’s café, Hannah Ferguson (played by Catherine Smitko) who becomes her employer. Soon she comes to know the mystery man who seems to live in the woods too (Ian Paul Custer).
What we learn in short order is that they all can sing to carry the 16 catchy tunes that tell the tale. Like the set design heavy on tree cutouts there is a two-dimensional quality to the script, in this writer’s view, that demands you just roll with it. You know right from the gitgo that this is a story with a happy ending and will be about Percy being reborn along with the town. No surprises there.
If anything, the big surprise is that this lite lite lite song rich confection actually packs in a few heavy themes—violence against women, child abuse, the pains of the Vietnam War, to name a few. These aren’t delved into in great depth, but are more like notions that are in the mix, much as race issues were so lightly touched upon by the breakthrough musical Showboat.
This is as feel-good though as a musical can get. You may be thinking that it is too sentimental for you, but yet be stifling tears. We feel for these characters and for their stories. It works.
The vocal performances of this cast are strong. In fact, in this writer’s view, we might get a better chance to enjoy the sweetness of the lead’s voice if she were without the mic she clearly doesn’t need in this Stage 773 theater space.
A Work Suited to American Blues Theater
It seems fitting that American Blues Theater would choose to stage this work. After all, they are the theater that brings It’s a Wonderful Life to Chicago every year. The Spitfire Grill is a touch of that Christmas sweetness in summer. This production will likely have special appeal to country music lovers, though the various songs are in several musical genres.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
The Spitfire Grill
Based on the Film by Lee David Zlotoff
Book by James Valeq & Fred Alley
Lyrics by Fred Alley
Music by James Valcq
Directed by Tammy Mader
Music Direction by Malcolm Ruhl
Dara Cameron, Ian Paul Custer, Karl Hamilton, Donterrio Johnson,
Jacquelyne Jones, Gabrielle Lott-Rogers, and Catherine Smitko
Sarah E. Ross* (scenic design), Jared Gooding* (lighting design), Lily Grace Walls (costume design), Rick Sims* (sound design), Mary O'Dowd (props design), Shandee Vaughan* (production manager), and Kate Ocker (stage manager).
Ian Paul Custer* (piano), Greg Hirte (violin), Malcolm Ruhl (accordion), Scott Sedlacek (guitar / mandolin), and Magdalena Sustere (cello)
Thru August 17
Saturdays: 3:00pm & 7:30pm
225 W Belmont Ave