Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Spitfire Grill
Ten Thousand Things Theater Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Sea Cabinet, Blended Harmony: The Kim Loo Sisters, Flex, Torch Song, and Seven Keys

Katherine Fried (center), surrounded by
Michelle Barber, Tom Reed, Katie Bradley,
Dominic Schiro, and George Keller

Photo by Tom Wallace
The thing about human beings is that we are all, well, human. We make mistakes, sometimes very bad ones. I am inclined to think most of us believe that, since we all make mistakes, we all deserve a second chance. Perhaps there are exceptions, though. Have you ever wondered if you are an exception, someone who has done something so ghastly that you don't deserve a second chance? Percy Talbott (Katherine Fried), the heroine of The Spitfire Grill, finds herself in that predicament. We meet her as she is released after serving a five-year prison sentence and heads for the town of Gilead, a rural crossroads in Wisconsin that captured her imagination based on a photo and caption in a travel magazine that made its way to her prison cell. Throughout this sweetly conceived musical, mounted by Ten Thousand Things Theater Company, second chances come Percy's way, but can she overcome her own belief that she is undeserving of those second chances?

The Spitfire Grill deals with redemption for Percy as well as several other characters. There is Hannah (Michelle Barber), the proprietor of the titular café, the only place to get a meal in Gilead. Hannah has become a crusty, bitter old woman since her golden boy son Eli enlisted in the army to fight in Vietnam and never returned. The pain of losing Eli took a toll on Hannah's husband and stopped his already weakened heart, leaving her a widow. There is also Caleb (Tom Reed), Hannah's nephew who has lost his confidence in the future since the quarry, where he and most of Gilead had been employed, shut down and who struggles to fill the gap left by his adored cousin Eli. Caleb exercises strict control over his wife Shelby (Katie Bradley), but when Hannah agrees to hire Percy to work at the Spitfire Grill, then leaves Percy on her own while she recovers from a nasty fall, Shelby sees an opportunity to be of value by helping Percy, and the two women form a fast friendship.

There are a few intertwined strands to the plot, with one of the most intriguing being a raffle to dispose of the Spitfire Grill. Hannah has long been trying to sell the restaurant with no takers. Percy dreams up the idea of holding a raffle and charging $100 per entry. Entrants must send their money, but also an essay about what owning the Spitfire Grill would mean to them. Word of the contest spreads, and Percy and Shelby read some of the submitted essays aloud, bearing testimony to an array of human needs and the endurance of human hope.

The Spitfire Grill, as a stage musical, has the same characters and set-up as Lee David Zlotoff's 1996 film on which it is based, but its book, by James Valcq (who also composed the music) and Fred Alley (who wrote the lyrics), makes some significant changes as the plot unfurls, especially in the second act. As a result, whereas the movie ended on a bittersweet note, the musical ends on a note of optimism, celebrating the return of light to a darkened community.

Ten Thousand Things' spare presentation style adheres to their standard of scant scenery and leaving all the house lights on so the show paying audiences see is the same one that is presented for free at such locations as homeless shelters, adult learning centers, halfway houses, inner city high schools, and prisons. Co-directors Marcela Lorca and Michelle O'Neil guide the cast to create a fluid delivery of the story, with Valcq and Alley's songs thoroughly integrated into the narrative flow to embellish a moment or express a feeling. There are no break-out dance numbers, but there are occasions when movement, conceived by Jim Lichtscheidl, expands upon a moment in the narrative.

Music director Peter Vitale, accompanied for much of the show by actor Tyson Forbes on guitar, beautifully delivers Valcq's score. The songs are largely in a folk music vein. Its melodies and lyrics that reveal the feelings imbedded in the characters so that we come to know them better, to share in their burdens and joys. Going in, I was unfamiliar with the songs, but intend to get my hands on the 2001 Off-Broadway cast recording, as I know I will enjoy hearing these songs often enough for them to become etched in my musical memory.

Fried is phenomenal as Percy, being able to call up her fierce defenses when she feels threatened, her resigned defeatism when she considers the odds against her, her guarded optimism when given the chance to help others, and a hint of affection when the possibility of love–which she believes herself unworthy of–crosses her path. Fried sings beautifully, with an emotive, throaty voice reminiscent of Sara Bareilles. Barber fully inhabits Hannah's crankiness and impatience with a world that has let her down, while still indicating an inner spark of kindness that has never been fully extinguished. Bradley's Shelby wondrously blossoms into a woman able to offer whole-hearted friendship and to stand up against a controlling, even threatening, husband, played by Reed. She also sings beautifully and in a duet with Fried, the music coming from their two voices is rapturous.

I am accustomed to seeing Reed play characters that are likeable, or loopy, or both, so I was startled to see him as the embittered, controlling, close-minded Caleb, but his persuasive performance had me believing him as the "bad guy" in short order. Dominic Schiro is totally winning as Joe, a sweetheart of a local sheriff, who aims to leave the stifling smallness of Gilead behind as soon as he rakes in the proceeds of an anticipated property inheritance. George Keller expertly delivers a string of comic relief moments as busybody postmistress Elly Krayneck, and Tyson Forbes, in addition to exquisite guitar playing, is a striking presence as a hermit living in the woods outside Gilead.

The Spitfire Grill is a feel-good musical, with heart galore, and a winning message about the possibility of climbing out from behind the darkest shadows and finding a life in the sun. Ten Thousand Things' spare production wisely places the focus on the story, the songs, and the characters, with one hundred percent success. It is a show that most anyone would be grateful to have seen; it is especially wonderful that its message, delivered with this degree of artistry, is reaching communities that have scant access to the arts and a great need for their redemptive power.

The Spitfire Grill, produced by Ten Thousand Things Theater Company, runs through May 19, 2024, at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church; and May 23, 2024 - June 2, 2024, at Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. South, Minneapolis MN. There is a June 9, 2024, performance at the Everwood Farmstead Foundation, E580 County Road X, Glenwood City WI. Remaining free community-based performances are sold out. For tickets and information, please call 612-203-9502 or visit

Music: James Valcq; Lyrics: Fred Alley; Book: James Valcq and Fred Alley, based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff; Co-Directors: Marcela Lorca and Michelle O'Neill; Music Director: Peter Vitale; Set and Props Design: Sarah Agnew, Nick Golfis; Costume Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Movement: Jim Lichtscheidl; Stage Manager: Maya Vagle; Production Manager: Ryan Volna-Rich.

Cast: Michelle Barber (Hannah Ferguson), Katie Bradley (Shelby Thorpe), Tyson Forbes (Visitor/Musician), Kathrine Fried (Percy Talbott), George Keller (Effy Krayneck), Tom Reed (Caleb Thorpe), Dominic Schiro (Joe Sutter).