Hawthorne Players lights up the community theater boards with a thoroughly enjoyable production of the popular musical The Spitfire Grill that clearly places the emphasis on hope, forgiveness, and personal change. The adaptation of the movie makes some important story changes to create a more uplifting and crowd-pleasing ending, and the solid cast effectively creates fully flawed, authentic characters.
Recently released from prison Percy arrives in the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin looking to make a fresh start on life. The local sheriff is initially suspicious of her motives and Percy is guarded and wary by nature and as a means of self-preservation. After the sheriff decides she's here in earnest, he helps her get a job and a place to stay at the local diner, run by Hannah Ferguson, a widow with pain and secrets of her own. Hannah's nephew and his wife, as well as the nosy town gossip and a mysterious visitor who hides in the shadows near the diner, all figure prominently in Percy's story of redemption and finding a place to call home.
Stefanie Kluba handles the role of Percy with spunk and just the right attitude. Her voice is clear and strong, particularly in her mid-range, and she brings a genuine sense of vulnerability and distrust to the role. Colin Dowd is shyly romantic, but filled with good intentions and surprising attraction as the sheriff. He and Kluba have several really pleasant duets and their romance develops with a slow, measured pace that suits the show.
Melanie Kozak is a delight as the mousy Shelby and the moment she comes out of her shell and finally speaks up for herself to Danny Brown's Caleb is quite satisfying. Brown finds the change in Caleb, and his character becomes considerably more sympathetic after his world is rocked a few times. Kathy Fugate, Trish Nelke, and Robert Doyle round out the cast, adding texture and a real sense of community to the sometimes overly simplistic story. The cast has strong voices and the songs are, for the most part, quite enjoyable. With such a small cast every voice matters, and while there were a couple of off notes and a few particularly taxing runs the ensemble handles the material and its context well.
Director Ken Clark has a solid vision for the show, and he finds several levels of emotional depth in the straightforward tale, though overall the characters are a bit flat and underdeveloped. This seems likely attributed to the source material, though Clark could have pushed his cast to probe their motivations a bit further. Clark's set is a delight; it really captures the sense of a small diner nestled in the trees of a small town. Eric Wennlund provides a gorgeous lighting design, the seasonal changes of the trees behind the diner are particularly pleasing, and Amanda Jackson does good work with the sound and balance. Speaking of sound, it is genuinely gratifying to hear a live band, with musical direction by Ike Eichenberger, emanating from the orchestra pit at the front of the stage.
The Spitfire Grill, running through November 12, 2017, is a fabulous choice for a community theater company like Hawthorne Players. The songs are pleasant, but not overly taxing, with an emphasis on storytelling. There's little need for complicated choreography or multiple set changes, but the ensemble capably makes use of the space they're given. While more attention to character connection and motivation is recommended, Clark directs the show with clear vision and an emphasis on community, ensuring an enjoyable, emotionally satisfying musical.