Through December 9, 2007
Reviewed by Mark Bretz
The talented kids in Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts have tested their mettle thus far this academic year with comedy (Anton in Show Business
) and the classics (Tartuffe
). Now comes their turn to shine in musical theater, with the current production of The Spitfire Grill
Based on a 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff, The Spitfire Grill takes place in a rustic community named Gilead in the backwoods of Wisconsin. That's where a young woman named Percy has come to live following her release from prison, based on some pictures she saved depicting the town's beauty in autumn. Now, however, winter is setting in as sternly as the reception ex-con Percy is greeted with, first at the depot and later at the diner where she takes a job as a waitress.
The Spitfire Grill is run by no-nonsense Hannah and is frequented by virtually everyone in the sleepy hamlet, including Hannah's taciturn nephew, Caleb, and his mousy wife, Shelby. There's also the amiable sheriff, Joe Sutter, the nosy postmistress, Effy, and a mysterious visitor who lives off the bread scraps that Hannah curiously leaves out nightly by the woodchopper.
When Hannah becomes injured, she remarks anew about her desire to sell the grill, which she's run alone since the death of her husband and disappearance of their son, a soldier who was declared missing in action in Vietnam and hasn't been heard of since. Percy and Shelby then conceive a fanciful plan to turn a tidy profit on the eatery for Hannah's labors, after years of Caleb's ineffectual attempts.
The movie, which starred such luminaries as Ellen Burstyn, Marcia Gay Harden and Will Patton, seems a curious mold for a musical, but it works marvelously thanks to the efforts of composer James Valcq and lyricist Fred Alley, who collaborated on the book. Under Bill Lynch's steady and sure direction, the Conservatory delivers a fine production.
Shayla Lynn Spradley displays a winning voice and acting talent as the troubled Percy. Liz Grace Ali brings warmth and increasing strength to Shelby as the downtrodden wife who finds her own purpose. Steven Pierce conveys the easygoing nature of the sheriff, who becomes smitten with Percy, and Katie Hart has fun as the busybody postmistress.
Daniel Ford is a bit stiff as the villainous Caleb and perhaps could loosen up a bit while still conveying his character's sluggish nature, and Robert Moore is OK in the silent role of the visitor. Anna Paniccia has the difficult job of portraying an elderly lady and does a credible job with the somewhat thankless task, although more range would be welcome.
Pianist Neal Richardson capably conducts the lively accompanying musical trio that includes guitarist Jay Raymond and cellist/keyboardist Ethan Edwards. The music is pleasant if mostly forgettable and suitably demonstrates the talents of the cast, although Ali's soft voice too often has difficulty transcending the musicians.
Overall, though, The Spitfire Grill is a most welcome effort and continues December 5 through 9  at Stage III on the campus of Webster University. For more information call 314-968-7128.