There is a breed of theatergoers who are prejudiced against – and will eager tell you they cannot abide – musicals. Understandably, they gravitate to stage companies like Palm Beach Dramaworks, which built its considerable reputation on the production of classic American plays.
But through some calculation that summertime is more fitting for lighter fare, the West Palm Beach troupe has mounted a string of compact musical and musical revues outside of its subscription season. Most of them have proven so popular that it was probably inevitable that one day Dramaworks would include a musical amid its thought-provoking dramas.
That time is now as it produces the small-scale but big-hearted The Spitfire Grill, the tale of an atrophying Wisconsin town and an ex-convict who arrives and becomes the catalyst for the neglected village’s turnaround and the redemption of its residents.
It is taking nothing away from the evocative, countrified score by James Valcq and the late Fred Alley to say that The Spitfire Grill feels more like a play with music than a full-blown musical. Unlike so many shows whose highlights are its production numbers, Spitfire has none, but merely a series of solos and interior arias which grab us on the gut level without even insulting our brains.
It is, in short, a first-rate example of a musical for those who do not like musicals, yet it is both smart and emotional enough to possibly convert them to the genre. And when you factor in the understated, but potent Dramaworks production, directed with a vigilance against sentimentality by Bruce Linser, with a fine cast of sweet, twangy singers and a string-heavy band of Lubbens – the group that so effectively accompanied last summer’s Woody Guthrie’s American Song – artistic success was all but inevitable.
So join the journey of Percy Talbott (Ashley Rose). Newly released from prison, she makes a beeline for Gilead, Wis., a town she saw featured in a magazine, presumably before it fell onto bad times with the closing of the local quarry and the rerouting of the highway that now bypasses Gilead entirely. Still, youthful Sheriff Joe (Blake Price) – Percy’s parole officer – takes a shine to her and helps her get a job assisting feisty-but-aging Hannah Ferguson (Elizabeth Dimon), the owner-operator of the tiny hamlet’s only restaurant.
The locals – Hannah’s nephew Caleb (Johnbarry Green), still embittered about losing his quarry job, his mousy wife Shelby (Amy Miller Brennan), town busybody and postmistress Effy (Patti Gardner) – do not take easily to strangers, but gradually Percy endears herself to most of them.
Based on a little-seen independent film from 1996, but lightened considerably in tone and incident, The Spitfire Grill is character-driven with souls brimming with yearnings and secrets. Eventually, though, the plot is consumed by a scheme hatched by Percy to help Hannah sell her long-on-the-market restaurant with a nationwide raffle. Soon bags of mail are arriving, filled with letters explaining why the applicant would want to move to Gilead and run a grill, plus the $100 entry fee.
Somewhat less convincing is a subplot involving a mysterious prowler in the nearby woods that Hannah provides with loaves of bread. It will not be hard to guess his identity, but swallowing the tidy resolution of his story takes a bit more effort.
Area newcomer Rose anchors the production as Percy, a genuine empathy magnet for the audience who delineates the character’s arc from wounded bird to a woman who takes control of her fate. And she sings with assurance, most notably on her 11 o’clock solo, “Shine,” a statement of unexpected optimism.
Brennan goes through a similar transformation, from abused-but-taking-it Shelby to an assertive woman unafraid to put her husband in his place. While we have come to expect performance strength from Dimon, she outdoes herself here as Hannah, notably on such soulful songs as “Forgotten Lullaby” and the score’s penultimate number, “Way Back Home.”
Paul Black provides a rustic, multi-level scenic design for the grill and its environs, then lights it for mood, shadow and, ultimately, sunshine.
If this show sounds familiar, perhaps you saw it at Florida Stage, which first brought it to South Florida in 2002. Since then, The Spitfire Grill has been a fixture on the regional theater circuit and around the world, produced an estimated 600-plus times. But it is hard to imagine it being done much better than it is currently at Dramaworks, or how one could see it and remain resistant to musicals.
THE SPITFIRE GRILL, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Feb. 24. $75, 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.