The folks at Colonial Players have found a foolproof recipe for feel-good entertainment at "The Spitfire Grill."
The players' current musical presentation is based on TV writer/director Lee David Zlotoff's 1996 Sundance Film Festival's Audience Award winning film. The musical version won the Richard Rogers Production Award in New Jersey before opening on Broadway in September 2001.
It closed after four weeks, a victim of 9/ll. Over the past decade "The Spitfire Grill" has spread its uplifting message of renewal and redemption, reinforced by its intriguing score to a growing number of appreciative audiences.
The plot of "The Spitfire Grill" focuses on the complex relationships of simple folks dealing with changes that contribute to their personal growth after a stranger arrives in town. Ex-convict Percy Talbott comes to Gilead, Wis. to start a new life in a village described as "having the fall colors of paradise along Copper Creek."
Percy is met by Sheriff Joe Sutter, who informs her that she is too late for fall colors, calling Gilead "a ghost town" where he must find a room and job for her. Joe finds both at Gilead's only diner, run by cranky widow Hannah Ferguson.
After a shaky start as waitress, Percy is asked to run the grill after Hannah breaks her leg. Hannah's nephew Caleb Thorpe opposes the move, although he has long encouraged Hannah's efforts to sell the Spitfire Grill.
Soon, Caleb's wife Shelby, who can cook, joins Percy to spruce up the menu. Oddly, Hannah has asked Percy to leave a loaf of bread every evening outside the grill to be picked up by a stranger. Because Hannah wants to sell the grill to escape painful memories, Percy suggests Hannah might raffle it off to bidders in an essay contest. Entries arrive in increasing numbers, as do customers at the improved diner.
Director Joan Townshend draws excellent performances from her extraordinary cast, and each character expresses growth. Townshend's career performing musical theater enhances her directorial skills in this integrated musical that fully depicts characters through song.
In this production, Anita O'Connor serves for the first time as Colonial Players music director, bringing prodigious talents that have brightened such Annapolis venues as Children's Theatre, Summer Garden and Bay Theatre.
Assistant music director Emily Sergo brings the score to life at each performance. She plays piano, joined by violinist Erin Kelly, guitarist Joe Thompson and cellists Bryan Barrett and Buzz Stillinger.
Karen Grim defines the leading role of Percy Talbott, the unlikely heroine hoping to create a new life among backwoods townsfolk in her new hometown of Gilead. Grim's Percy transitions to become Hannah's caregiver and eventually co-worker Shelby's trusting friend. She does so not only through acting skill but by proving a skilled enough singer to define her character in a series of songs.
Jill Sharpe Compton returns to Colonial Players after a 13-year absence to create a powerful portrayal of Hannah Ferguson, who seems imprisoned by her memories. Compton's Hannah signals her recognition of a fellow prisoner in Percy by giving the ex-convict a home and job. Displaying vocal skills to match her formidable acting talents, Compton offers a moving "Forgotten Lullaby" expressing old wounds, and leads the cast in a spirited "Come Alive Again" describing the transformation of grill and town.
As abused wife Shelby Thorpe who gains confidence working with Percy, actor Sandra Rardon displays a gorgeous soprano voice to do full justice to "When Hope Goes" — about girlhood memories of the town sending Hannah's son Eli off to Vietnam. She also shines in "Wild Bird," expressing compassion for Percy's tragic past, and in the uplifting "Shoot the Moon" anthem by a Shelby, Hannah and Percy trio.
Another skilled actor-singer, Eric Hufford makes a strong CP debut as Sheriff Joe Sutter, delivering a memorable "This Wide World" lamenting the removal of trees and later singing "Forest for the Trees" after he finds reason to remain in Gilead.
As Hannah's nephew and Shelby's angry husband Caleb, Lawrence Griffin brings drama and frustration to his lament in "Digging Stone."
Jean Berard plays Post Mistress Effy Krayneck for maximum comic effect and displays her vocal talents in "Out of the Frying Pan" and "Something's Cooking at the Spitfire Grill."
Robert Wright adds substance to the mysterious silent Visitor,
Contributing their talents to this CP production are lighting designer Harvey Hack, set and floor designer Beth Terranova, sound designer Richard Atha-Nicholls and set engineer and lead carpenter Dick Whaley.
"The Spitfire Grill" continues weekends Thursdays through Sundays through April 21. To order tickets call Box Office at 410-268-7373 or online at thecolonialplayers.org.