Theater Review: THE SPITFIRE GRILL (Lamplighters Community Theatre in San Diego)

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by Milo Shapiro on April 29, 2024

in Theater-San Diego


With the unexpectedly huge American response to Netflix’s Virgin River, there seems to be a great longing to see what life might be like in a tiny, forested community instead of the hustle and bustle of semi-anonymous city life. From It’s a Wonderful Life to The Andy Griffith Show to Northern Exposure, TV and film have given the fictional towns where everyone knows everyone and life is better for it; so why not musical theater?

James Valcq and Fred Alley’s The Spitfire Grill, a 2001 musical of the 1995 film, takes its name from the setting of the tale: a dilapidated old diner and rooming house in a remote fictional berg in Wisconsin called Gilead. Hannah Ferguson (Erin Grayce) is a reasonably good cook but, as it’s pointed out, townies would come even if she wasn’t − because there’s no other restaurant for many miles.

Gilead Sheriff Joe Sutter (Kannon Gowen) is tasked with figuring out what to do with a female parolee. She goes by the name Percy (Marcy Ledvinka) and has, somewhat randomly, chosen Gilead as the place she wants to start over because there’s no other particular place for her to go. She’s gruff and guarded, but understands that finding work is a condition for probation, so she’s chosen a place where there’s essentially no work. Joe pretty much assigns her to Hannah, who could use the help but doesn’t cotton to yet another rough-edged hired hand who will likely disappear like all the others.

If you’re holding out for car chases, gunfire, and fireworks, this isn’t your show. It’s a gentle tale of folks facing the cards they’re given, be it financial strain, marriage issues, childhood issues, or unresolved grief. Alley’s lyrics and Valcq’s music (they co-wrote the book) strike a warm note as we learn more about the three, as well as Hannah’s son Caleb (Robert Coe) – who can’t live up to the legacy of his war hero brother – and his wife Shelby (Kailey Agpaoa), who wants a bit more connection than what she gets from making sure his shirts are always clean and pressed.

The script is good but not magnificent. Moments that are probably supposed to be big dramatic turns fall a little more into “Oh, okay, now I see why this person is that way.”  It’s more that we’ve seen these themes before than it is the performances and Amanda Blair‘s direction. That said, there was one moment, late in the stronger second act, when a tender exchange unexpectedly choked up this reviewer, more from physical movement and one actor’s expression than anything being said. Adina Silva adds some nice levity as the mail carrier and town gossip who seems to be a little too aware of what’s in every letter.

Vocal abilities varied, with no real issues, but only a few strikingly good moments. Gower has a lovely richness to his voice; Ledvinka and Agpaoa have some excellent harmonies, including a trio with Grayce. In a few places where the music was more folksy, Ledvinka evokes a young Joan Baez. (The show is double-cast.)

At first, I mistakenly thought the music was pre-recorded, but then my eye caught, off in the wings, at least two band members (a guitar and a bowed instrument).  The ease with which they supported the singer was notably commendable.

In the end, Lamplighters‘ feel-good production is more than likely to pull your heartstrings in just the way it intends.

The Spitfire Grill
Lamplighters Community Theatre, 5915 Severin Drive
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on May 19, 2024
for tickets ($24-$29), call 619.303.5092​ or visit Lamplighters

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