Get local news delivered straight to your phone

We can't make City Paper without you

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Dried-up, run-down nowheresville Gilead, Wis., needs a balm, and anyone who’s ever seen a midcentury American musical—or the 1996 movie that inspired this 2001 tuner—will know right off that broody ex-con Percy Talbot is gonna be the one to provide it. Small town need some new blood? She’s your girl. Injured diner owner need an assistant? Check. Stifled housewife need a new friend to help her rediscover her spine? You got it. So yes, The Spitfire Grill can seem predictable, from the identity of that nighttime figure skulking around the back side of the dilapidated eatery where the dour Hannah Ferguson (Judy Simmons) mourns her missing soldier son to whether Percy (an agreeably unfussy Toni Rae Brotons) will let herself fall for the local sheriff who’s falling so hard for her. Delightful? That, too, for audiences prepared to set aside citified cynicism and swoon along with a story that’s not ashamed to wear its big, full heart squarely on its old-fashioned sleeve. James Valcq and Fred Alley Lee make that sort of willing suspension all the easier with a raft of amiable tunes in a sort of theaterized Americana-folk style—think Floyd Collins without the grim undertones or the high-toned melodic sophistication—and musical director Jeffery Watson leads a three-piece ensemble through the score with no little grace. The arrangements start small—unassuming phrases framed by Watson’s understated keyboards; Doug Poplin’s warm, muscular cello; and Steve Smith’s easy guitar, with Smith contributing the occasional starry scattering of grace notes on mandolin—and swell yearningly whenever Valcq and Lee want to make sure we’re still invested in the story. (Which, I suppose I must grumble, is fairly often.) Still, Paul-Douglas Michnewicz and the Theater Alliance field a cast whose voices are strong enough individually and genuinely stirring in ensemble, and even cynics will have to struggle to suppress a goofy grin when it all comes together in a number as rousing as the Act 2 opener, “Come Alive Again.” Musical numbers tend to be stronger than the nonsung scenes—everyone’s working a little too hard at rural color, with maybe the exception of J. McAndrew Breen’s sweet-natured, laid-back lawman and Rebecca Herron’s town busybody, who’s so nosily funny you’ll snort now and again. But Michnewicz stages things fluidly and demonstrates plenty of savvy in making musical theater work in a small space, and Thomas F. Donahue’s ingenious multilayered set, evocatively lit by Klyph Stanford, encloses a convincing-enough greasy spoon in the moody shadows of what seems to be an endless forest. Great art this ain’t—The Spitfire Grill is too formulaic and ultimately too fulsome for that—but in this robust production, it’s pretty damn good fun.—Trey Graham