The regulars in a Wisconsin eatery share a laugh in “The Spitfire Grill,” a musical that opened Friday at Camelot Theatre in Talent. - Photo by Steve Sutfin

'The Spitfire Grill' tells a hopeful tale

When you walk into Camelot Theatre for its production of "The Spitfire Grill," you hear the voice of Patty Larkin singing through the speakers. Larkin says on her Web site: "I am inspired by change — it defines me, and it can be subtle or radical. It captures my imagination," and she quotes from the Dalai Lama: "Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk."

The Spitfire Grill lies tucked in the woods of the small town of Gilead, Wisc. The town's only place to eat besides home, by evening's end it will inspire change and witness both great love and great risk. Donald Zastoupil's set was so real and so inviting that I wanted to come back the next morning for hash browns and eggs.

Emily Ehrlich Inget costumed the cast with equal attention to detail. Sound designer Brian O'Connor added just the right amount of ambient sound to combine with Bart Grady's lighting to contribute to the play's grand sweep of human emotions.

Hannah Ferguson (Shirley Patton) has owned the Spitfire Grill for years and longs to sell it. By day she feeds the same local customers and at night she sets out a loaf of bread for a homeless man (John Simutis). Shelby Thorpe (Livia Genise) helps at the grill. Shelby's husband, Caleb (Erik Connolly), at loose ends ever since the quarry closed, wants his wife to spend less time at the grill and more time at home ironing his shirts. Effy Krayneck (Linda Otto), who runs the local post office, pops in with juicy tidbits about everyone's lives. And keeping the peace — which is rarely disturbed — is Sheriff Joe Sutter (Jeremy Johnson).

Change both subtle and radical descends on Gilead with the arrival of Percy Talbott (Shannon McReynolds), a young woman who has spent the past five years of her life in prison.

Since this is a musical, much of the story is told through song. James Valcq and Fred Alley wrote the book based on Lee David Zlotoff's 1997 Sundance Festival Audience Award-winning film. Valcq wrote the music and Alley wrote the lyrics. The songs are interesting in unexpected ways. There are Celtic strains running through them, contemporary folk nuances, large-scale sounds and opera-like recitatives. Some have so much to say that they run on a bit and some teeter at the brink of sentimentality. But they all work.

Meagan Iverson provided musical direction and Rebecca Campbell choreography with some clever touches, especially in "Something's Cooking in the Spitfire Grill." Keyboardists Iverson and Aaron Blenkush are the orchestra. Doug Warner's direction remembers that this is a musical and gives the cast intimate moments as well as grand production numbers.

It's a pleasure to experience Otto in a role where she can use her vocal and comedic talents, as in "Ice and Snow." Genise's singing, particularly in "Wild Bird," gives more dimension to Shelby. Connolly's voice is nothing less than stunning. Patton brings her considerable skills as an actor to create a powerful presence on the stage. McReynolds imbues Percy with strength and vulnerability. Her "Out of the Frying Pan" is a show stopper. McReynolds and Johnson work wonderful chemistry together. Simutis, who never says one word, says much in his body language and facial expressions. Camelot has given us a triumphant hymn to hope.

"The Spitfire Grill" plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays and 2 p.m. Sundays through July 22. Call 535-5250.

Richard Moeschl is the Tempo Editor. Reach him at 776-4486 or

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