The Empire Theatre Company is closing out its 2013-14 season on “American Community” with the musical The Spitfire Grill. The musical focuses on a young woman fresh out of prison who moves to the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin to make a fresh start. It’s an appropriate entry in a season focusing on American communities, especially for North Dakota: those who come from the small postage stamp towns that dot the state will recognize many of the traits of Gilead’s residents, both good and bad, in themselves and their experiences. When Percy Talbott (Misti Koop) gets off the bus in Gilead, greeted by the local Sheriff, Joe Sutter (Evan Montgomery), the town is set abuzz with gossip and conjecture, fueled by the town’s Postmaster and resident gossip-monger Effy Krayneck (Abby Shoenborn). This insular attitude is very familiar to residents of small towns, where people want to know all about the strangers who happen into their midst, and offer politeness if not necessarily a true welcome.
The name Gilead has many associations, most notably Biblical associations, but perhaps the one that seems the most pertinent is that Gilead in Hebrew can refer to a memorial site; Percy has her own secret and her own reason to mourn, and Hannah Ferguson (Nicole Quam), the elderly owner of the Spitfire Grill where Percy ends up making a home, is haunted by her own memories from the past. Hannah has been trying to sell the Grill since her husband died 10 years ago with no luck. With a half-serious suggestion from Percy and meek housefrau Shelby Thorpe (Maura Ferguson), Hannah decides to raffle off the Grill: anyone can enter provided they write an essay about why they should be given the Grill and include a $100 entry fee. This plan vexes Hannah’s nephew and Shelby’s domineering husband Caleb Thorpe (Darin Kerr), a down-on-his-luck good ol’ boy who serves as the primary villain for the show, or at least as much of a villain as their light-hearted, homespun concoction will allow. But when Percy discovers a mysterious visitor (Christopher Olsen) with ties to the town’s deepest wound, everyone’s lives are in for some unexpected changes.
There is a certain unsophisticated simplicity to the residents of Gilead that could be almost offensive to people who come from small towns if the actors didn’t play them with such interesting characterizations: none falls too deeply into a stereotype and each has a certain charm in the role they fulfill in the small Wisconsin town. Koop’s Percy has an urban grittiness about her that plays well against the other characters, the contrast giving them a certain cloying sweetness that sometimes smacks of a Steel Magnolias-esque southern hospitality without completely betraying its Midwestern setting. When Percy reveals her secret to Shelby, it’s an uncharacteristically dark moment in the show, filled with tabloid-worthy scandalous details that further accentuate her urban origins; Hannah’s secret, once revealed, is another dark spot on the sunny landscape, but it’s wrapped up in a certain patriotic-family-pride-Americana that more firmly grounds it in the rural setting, rather than isolating it.
The major disappointment of this show is the music: as if to provide an auditory argument for the idea of the homogenous rural community, the songs in the show display very little variety. The music in the show sounds like it could very well be the exact same song played on a loop at slightly different tempos and with slightly different voices – which is a shame considering the tremendous voices the cast display. Another factor that adds to the sameness is the use (or rather, overuse) of repetition: there are few if any songs in the show that don’t feature lines that are repeated over (and over…and over…) again. A perfectly beautiful moment was almost ruined by the fact that I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, “I swear to Christ, if I hear the line ‘The colors of Paradise come to you…’ one more fucking time!” It’s possible that the lyricist meant this repetition to symbolize the sameness of life in a small town to highlight exactly how jarring Percy’s arrival is to Gilead’s status quo; it could be that the repetition is meant to act like a refrain, reinforcing the simple virtues of the town’s residents, almost like a comforting hymn. It could be that the songwriter was just lazy, or unimaginative. Whatever the reason, the show suffers from a lack of musical variety and the absolutely stellar voices of the cast are not given a range that would truly allow them to shine. It’s not even that the music is bad; there are definitely bright spots like Percy’s first day cooking at the Grill (“Out of the Frying Pan”) and Caleb’s lament at losing his sense of masculine pride when the quarry closed down (“Digging Stone”), and there are several ballads handled expertly by Ferguson, Koop, and Quam that are poignant without being precious, but what could be great songs become just good songs because of the similarity from number to number, and there is an overall blandness to the soundtrack as a whole that I just wasn’t able to get past. But hey, I’ve always hated A Chorus Line, so what the fuck do I know?
What I do know is that criticism of the music aside, I had a rather delightful time at the Empire Arts Center seeing The Spitfire Grill. The voices of the cast really are wonderful, and there are moments throughout that show small town life in an interesting and authentic way. A small detail that I found especially enchanting is that Percy’s real name is Perchance – like maybe. Everyone in Gilead is wrestling with their own maybe: maybe I could have (or should have) done things differently, maybe I can decide things for myself, maybe I don’t have to turn my back on where I come from. Maybe someday I’ll be welcomed back into their hearts. Percy’s maybe is reflected in the raffle submissions that start pouring in from all over the country: Maybe I can start over. Maybe is a word that can keep us wrapped up in our regrets, but it’s also a word that can represent possibility. And though the resolutions that come aren’t particularly surprising, they are a definitive celebration of the hope of possibility.
The Spitfire Grill is directed by Chris Berg with music direction by David Henrickson, and runs the rest of this week through Saturday, 7:30 pm at the Empire Theatre. Tickets are $15, $12 for students.
Tags: Abby Schoenborn, Chris Berg, Christopher Olsen, community theatre, coomunity theater, Darin Kerr, David Henrickson, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater Company, Empire Theatre Company, Evan Montgomery, Idle Gossip, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, maura Ferguson, Miss Jaye, Misti Koop, Nicole Quam, Nikki Quam, Raffle, Small Town Gossip, Small Town Life, Spit Fire Grill, Spitfire Grill, The Spitfire Grill