Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review: (Vancouver) The Spitfire Grill

Barbara Pollard, Julie McIsaac and Caitriona Murphy - photo by Francesca Albertazzi

Better than the movie
by David C. Jones
The Spitfire Grill is a blue-grass musical based on a film that I walked out of. The story concerns a young woman who spent five years in jail. She moves to a small town she saw in a magazine and gets work in its only restaurant – The Spitfire Grill. The owner, Hannah, is running an essay contest to get rid of the diner and get out of the small dead town of Gilead.
Vancouver is enraptured by musicals – we produced an inordinate amount of them – original or otherwise - and we simply don’t have the talent to produce that many. Often we have shows that have lacklustre singers or ones who can hold a note but can’t act their way out of a paper bag.
Thankfully The Midnight Theatre Collective was able to get a top notch cast who not only can sing beautifully and act their freakin’ guts out but they all play multiple instruments...sometimes switching instruments mid-song!
The passion and power is palpable.

While I found the original film too earnest and slow (causing me to flee the theatre) the melodrama of the story lends itself to the blue grass styling of James Valcq and Fred Alley greatly. Although a few of the lyrics were a little clunky there were other songs that were immensely powerful – like when the people see their town of Gilead through the eyes of letter writers (“Shoot The Moon”) or when out-of-work quarry-worker Caleb sings “Digging Stone”. The passion and power is palatable. ‘When hope goes, hearts close’.

Director Kerry van der Griend has done an incredible job - the whole production looks and sounds great. His musical director Steven Greenfield affably plays the part of Sherriff Joe and when he sings “Forest For The Trees” - a desperate ode of love to Percy - it is heartbreaking. Sarah May Redmond is hilarious as the town gossip Effy Krayneck and Caitriona Murphy as Shelby Thorpe is such a pleasure to watch as she finds new hope in the presence of Percy.
Damon Calderwood as the blustering Caleb Thorpe gives the finest performance I have ever seen from him – his singing made me catch my breath. Barbara Pollard plays sassy Grill owner Hannah with a dark secret - her full-throated “Forgotten Lullaby” raged with pain. Both she and the dynamic Julie McIsaac as Percy have the toughest acting jobs as they have some pretty melodramatic stuff but they handle it with conviction and truth and they are alive in each moment.
It’s a simple sweet story that is done with such an eye to detail and fun. From the Stomp-like use of tools as percussion in the song “Ice and Snow” to the evocative lighting by Ian Schimpf and Ian Giles (one song is lit with mining helmets!). The set and costume design by Francesca Albertazzi is rustically charming and makes good use of the awkward staging in Pacific Theatre’s corridor venue.
The Spitfire Grill contains great, great singing, superb acting and has a lot of heart. Sure it's melodramatic but so is opera and this is a bluegrass musical that moves ya!

‘Say what you want, say what you will, something’s cooking at The Spitfire Grill.’

(Meanwhile: I saw a workshop production of Post Secret Live based on the world phenomenon blog and book series. The script is still being massaged; although some of the passages are quite moving it still plays like a book. However, I look forward to seeing how it develops.)

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