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PTC's ‘The Spitfire Grill’ is cooking with gas

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From left: Hannah (Kelly Lester), Percy (Elizabeth Flanagan), Joe (Ira Kramer) and Shelby (Brianne Beck) in PTC's "The Spitfire Grill." From left: Hannah (Kelly Lester), Percy (Elizabeth Flanagan), Joe (Ira Kramer) and Shelby (Brianne Beck) in PTC's "The Spitfire Grill." (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2018)

BANGOR – Penobscot Theatre Company has cooked up another crowd pleaser.

PTC’s “The Spitfire Grill” – with music and book by James Valcq and lyrics and book by Fred Alley – is currently running at the Bangor Opera House. Based on the 1996 Lee David Zlotoff film of the same name, the production – directed by Dominick Varney with musical direction by William Shuler – runs through May 13.

It’s the story of a young woman adrift in life who seeks a place to call home. Having almost randomly selected a small town in Wisconsin as her destination, she arrives to discover a slowly dying place populated largely by closed minds. But as time passes, she finds friendships unlike any she’s ever had before – friendships that may ultimately be threatened by looming shadows of the past.

Percy Talbott (Elizabeth Flanagan) has just gotten out of prison. With nowhere to go, she set out to find a place she knows only through an old photo clipped from a magazine – the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin. Upon her arrival, she’s met by Sheriff Joe Sutter (Ira Kramer), a good-hearted lawman who is nevertheless suspicions of the newcomer.

He takes Percy to the Spitfire Grill, the local diner owned and operated by Hannah Ferguson (Kelly Lester). The no-nonsense Hannah takes Percy in, giving her a job and a place to stay. Despite the misgivings of many locals – including Hannah’s nephew Caleb (Scott Johnson) and town busybody Effy Krayneck (Heather Astbury-Libby) – Percy slowly starts to fit in. And when Hannah has a fall, Caleb’s wife Shelby (Brianne Beck) comes in to help; she and Percy almost immediately become fast friends.

Hannah’s wanted to sell the Spitfire Grill for years, but she never found a buyer. But when Percy suggests the idea of an essay contest – an essay plus a $100 check buys you a shot at winning the diner – initial skepticism gives way to wild celebration as entries pour in from all over the country, with thousands of people rolling the dice.

Alas, it isn’t that easy. Sometimes, the past refuses to stay buried. Certain suspicions lead to Percy being forced to push away from those who would be closest to her. And there are truths about Hannah and her life that are also dragged into the light. And at the center of it all is the Spitfire Grill.

“The Spitfire Grill” is one of those shows that relies particularly heavily on those who are bringing it to life. There’s a degree of sincerity inherent to the piece; without it, the narrative crumbles into contrivance. However, if things go too far in the “gee whiz” direction, you’re left with something undeniably hokey. Finding the proper balance is crucial in mounting a production like this successfully.

Director Varney is a PTC veteran. He’s best known for his work in broad comedy, capturing outsized characters as well as anyone you’ll see. But “The Spitfire Grill” gives him a chance to demonstrate a softer, gentler touch – an opportunity he embraces. While we do see the occasional broad comic choice, Varney largely steers the performers into more interior-driven performances; that interiority allows for real connection between the ensemble and the audience.

On the song side, music director Shuler (who pulls triple duty – he mans the keyboard and also gives a solid performance in an onstage role about which the less said, the better) has crafted some tight, compelling musical performances. The music – provided by Marisa Solomon (cello), Ryu Mitsuhashi (violin), Rya Morrill (accordion) and Gaylen Smith (guitar, mandolin) - is folksy, rootsy, Americana-type stuff; bouncy and toe-tapping. The Act I-closing “Shoot the Moon,” an uproarious and energetic tune, is definitely a highlight, as is the ensemble number “Something’s Cooking at the Spitfire Grill.” Percy’s opening number – “A Ring Around the Moon” – is sweet and engaging. “Digging Stone,” “Forest for the Trees,” “Wild Bird,” “Way Back Home” … heck, all the songs are strong. Some are funny, some are sad. Some are goofy, some are genuine. But all of them are good.

Smaller cast musicals like this one ask a lot of their casts. There’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done in order for an ensemble of just seven to create a rich, full world. This cast is largely up to that task. Flanagan brings a wonderful charm to her portrayal of Percy; there’s an innocence about the actress that suits the role. Even in Percy’s darker moments, there’s an underlying light to the performer that helps us maintain connection. As Hannah, Lester offers a wonderful don’t-give-a-crap vibe; there’s a simple steadfastness to her portrayal that will ring true to anyone who has known a certain kind of small-town woman. And when the two really connect, a beautiful sense of warmth and fellowship washes over the stage.

Shelby is the sort of character who could read one-dimensionally, but Beck gives her a depth you might not notice at a wide-eyed first glance. Shelby’s journey toward self-actualization is filled with feeling thanks to a heartfelt portrayal. Johnson gives Caleb a hard edge, but also finds ever-so-brief moments of softness; in many ways, he’s the show’s heavy, but Johnson never lets us forget that Caleb – misguided as he might be – is trying to do and be what he believes to be right. Kramer fills Sheriff Joe with a kind of aw-shucks sadness, bound by duty yet constantly dreaming of what might have been – another stalwart type in a small town. He’s as honest a performer as we have around here. And there aren’t many who can dig into a quirky character role quite like Astbury-Libby; in her hands, Effy is big and broad and unfailingly fun to watch.

As for the production side of things, PTC continues its lengthy run of well-crafted designs well executed. The Spitfire Grill comes to creaky shoddy life through the rundown precision of Sean McClelland’s set design; a thoughtful, effective and aesthetically interesting use of the space. Lighting designer Jonathan Spencer works his usual magic, capturing and evoking mood with light as deftly as anyone you’re likely to see. Kevin Koski’s costuming work captures the quiet working-class pride of a small town, while sound designer Katie Guzzi once again handles the notoriously finicky Opera House acoustics.

“The Spitfire Grill” wears its heart on its sleeve; it is unapologetic in its emotion. Occasionally, that emotionality leads it in some directions that could potentially wind up feeling corny or campy. Thanks to Varney’s subtle directorial touch, a collection of lovely music and some heartfelt and honest performances, it never gets there.

I cried, I chuckled, I cheered. And really – what more can you ask of a night at the theater?

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