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The Spitfire Grill

By Fred Alley

By J. Bowers | Posted 5/18/2005

The Spitfire Grill

At Fells Point Corner Theatre through June 12

This month, Fells Point Corner Theatre serves up the Maryland premiere of The Spitfire Grill, Fred Alley’s musical interpretation of Lee David Zlotoff’s 1996 film about a sassy ex-con who travels to the sleepy hamlet of Gilead, Wis., joins the skeleton crew of the local greasy spoon, and turns the whole town upside down with her newfangled notions.

In classic, old-fashioned musical style, The Spitfire Grill is relentlessly cheerful and upbeat, but thankfully devoid of any of the all-singing, all-dancing production numbers that the genre is known for. The cast of FPCT’s production—headed by the charming Claire Bowerman as Perchance Talbott (pictured, with Russell Wooldridge), the erstwhile con—fills the dancing void by using various props to augment the pre-recorded soundtrack, banging pots and pans, rattling snow-tire chains, and generally getting creative with set designer Roger MacDonald’s convincingly run-down stage set.

This strategy works for the most part, particularly during “Ice and Snow,” a number in which three supporting characters illustrate the passing of time using various outdoor tools, but the atmosphere of the production is held back by Charles Danforth III’s puzzling lighting choices. Gels change for no reason, lights seem out of sync with the onstage action, and as a whole, the lighting design is a distraction, not an asset.

Nancy Kelso is appropriately hardheaded and stern as Hannah Ferguson, the stubborn owner of the Spitfire Grill, and she imbues her subplot, which involves a soldier son who is MIA, with genuine pathos and believable emotion. Less convincing is Peggy Dorsey’s saccharine portrayal of submissive wife Shelby Thorpe, and Matthew Bowerman’s bitter real estate agent Caleb Thorpe. Both have strong voices, but Bowerman’s attempts at intensity seem campy, not real.

Troy Hopper shines as Sheriff Joe Sutter, imbuing the character with appropriately been-there, done-that ennui, and providing a sense of the Gilead that exists beyond the confines of the stage. Similarly, Kathy Marshall’s busybody Effy Krayneck doesn’t offer any new interpretations of the meddling neighbor character-type, but Marshall hams things up like a redheaded Gladys Kravitz, pulling shocked faces and acting put-upon at every opportunity.

Split into two acts, The Spitfire Grill is surprisingly fast-paced, especially considering the amount of time and care devoted to character development. And despite the moral underpinnings of the script—should an ex-con be allowed to start over in a small town, can leopards change their spots, etc.—FPCT’s production is refreshing entertainment, never heavy-handed. If you don’t mind some confusing lighting changes, this one’s worth a look.

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