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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Set work wows in Sheboygan Theatre’s ‘Spitfire Grill’

Performances in the musical touch the heart, too

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (WFRV) – Sheboygan Theatre Company strikes the right chords in its heartfelt presentation (4½ stars out of 5) of “The Spitfire Grill,” a musical filled with redemption and hope. Performances continue through March 8; info: www.sheboygantheatre.com.

Director Robert Marra and the cast embrace the story of Percy Talbott, fresh from prison and searching to re-start her life in a remote town in Wisconsin.

Cutting to the quick, the musical is interesting. The characters engage. Their songs ring and tell volumes about the person singing. The performers tune in to their characters. Opening night’s performance Friday, Feb. 28, earned a standing ovation.

Setting this production apart is its unique set setup. WOW! Here’s the basic look as the audience arrives: On the proscenium stage (flat-front) at the back is a row of fence-like slats in two sections, with a gap in the middle; the color behind suggests dusk. In a section of seats to the audience’s left is a forest-like setup, with trunks of small trees and representations of larger trees and a covering on the seats meant to suggest the forest floor. On the lip of a horseshoe-shaped stage that arcs from the proscenium stage are a stump and an axe. The center of the horseshoe is dark, with the contents within barely visible. As the show starts, Percy is in the gap on the proscenium stage, singing in orange prison wear. The song ends, and she’s off to her destination of Gilead, Wisconsin. Stepping off the bus, Percy is immediately met by the sheriff, who gives her a chance for a job when he takes her to the Spitfire Grill. By hydraulic lifts, the grill has risen from the recesses of the center of the horseshoe. Pardon me while I add !!!!!!!!!!!! to the grill has risen from the recesses of the center of the horseshoe!!!!!!!!!!!!  Up have come the kitchen, counters, tables, walls, props, etc., along with an upstairs bedroom. It’s an extremely clever use of what’s available to the company. For a key scene change late in the show, the grill disappears so Percy can be in another place to sing (symbolically) of the rising sun in “Shine.” Many theaters have stages with lifts, but this use is right up near the top, near amazing.

In the story, Percy is given a job by Hannah, who owns the Spitfire Grill, which has seen better times. The sheriff is also Percy’s parole officer, and there’s a spark from him toward her. Percy soon develops a friend in Shelby, who has struggles with her husband, Caleb, who continually has the rug pulled from beneath him. Dropping in to the grill regularly is the town busybody, Effy. The story also has a mysterious figure. Some of the action churns around an idea Percy and Shelby have for Hannah to sell the grill, a kind of raffle that brings piles of letters to the place.

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Songs

Act I

“A Ring Around the Moon,” Percy

“Something’s Cooking at the Spitfire Grill,” Company

“Out of the Frying Pan,” Percy

“When Hope Grows,” Shelby

“Ice and Snow,” Caleb, Joe and Effy

“The Colors of Paradise,” Percy and Shelby

“Digging Stone,” Caleb

“This Wide Woods,” Joe and Percy

“Forgotten Lullaby,” Hannah

“Shoot the Moon,” Hannah and Company

Act II

“Come Alive Again,” Hannah and Company

Forest for the Trees,” Joe

“Wild Bird,” Shelby

“Shine,” Percy

“Way Back Home,”

“Finale,” Company

***

Cast (in order of appearance): Percy Talbott, Laurie Dillman; Sheriff Joe Sutter, Kirt Graves; Hannah Ferguson, Sue Kaiser; Caleb Thorpe, Daniel Hannell; Effy Krayneck, Michelle Bestful; Shelby Thorpe, Hannah Benton; The Visitor, Kyle Schwanke.

Creative: Fred Alley, lyrics and book; James Valcq, music and book; Robert Marra, director; Ray Rhoads, musical director; Eric Rautmann, set design; Joyce Nery, costume design; Austin Weber, lighting designer and engineer; Gary Kaiser, sound designer and engineer; Nan Gibson, properties mistress; Katy Ries, stage manager.

***

One of the assets of the show by Fred Alley and James Valcq is the sharing in the story by the characters, all but one featured in telling solos. Songs tell of a shattered life, of joys of the wild, of recognition of soul, of agonies in manhood stolen away, of yearning to heal deep wounds, of ecstasy in fun moments, of Wisconsin’s seasons. I’ve heard Fred Alley sing in shows, and I could hear his voice in all the characters in “The Spitfire Grill.” He could sing better than anybody in this production, but the singing is fine for an amateur production and admirable for the earnest deliveries. All of the performers are more than likable as they develop many nuances.

Fred Alley and James Valcq are from Wisconsin. Fred Alley was co-founder of American Folklore Theatre, which puts on original musicals in Peninsula State Park in Door County. Fred Alley died at age 38, shortly after “The Spitfire Grill” won a major award for production in New York City. James Valcq today is co-artistic director of Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay. He continues to compose and perform. At present, he is starring in a production of the musical “Souvenir” at Sturgeon Bay, which has performances that coincide with that of “The Spitfire Grill.” An interview with James Valcq will be published on this site Sunday, March 2.

 

***

REST OF SEASON: “Oliver,” May 9-17. As usual, the company promotes its next production with a display in the lobby. In this case, a table is set up with gruel bowls placed for serving the story’s orphans.

THE VENUE: The 870-seat Leslie W. Johnson Theatre is a spacious facility in the shape of an amphitheater. The seats are red. The ceiling is high. The front row of seats is on the performance level, which is a half circle. A proscenium stage area extends across the rear line of the half circle. The theater is located in Horace Mann Middle School, which was built in 1970. The aura of the lobby and theater combined is that of a community gathering place.

THE PEOPLE: Leslie W. Johnson was a Sheboygan superintendent of schools. Horace Mann (1796-1859) was a leader in the development of public education in the United States, including the teaching of teachers.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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