The Spitfire Grill- a musical

The Spitfire Grill, directed by Laura Beck, is the latest production at CSD theatres (Corvallis High School’s theatre for those who aren’t familiar). This show is a must see for many reasons which I’ll do my best to share here without giving away key plot points ๐Ÿ™‚

The story is set in the present day in Gilead, Wisconsin. Percy, a young woman, arrives in Gilead to start a new life. She hits a few snags getting settled in her first few weeks but finds support with the locals who befriend her. Local townspeople include Joe, the town sheriff; Hannah, the owner of The Spitfire Grill; Caleb, Hannah’s nephew; Shelby, Caleb’s wife; Effy, the postmaster; a mysterious visitor, and townspeople ensemble.

This show is about starting over, trying new things, opening yourself up to new places and new relationships, and forgiveness. Not just forgiving other people but forgiving yourself. While these themes can be challenging for some casts to tackle, this cast of student actors do it with grace, love, and tremendous support for one another. The dialogue is personal, funny, poignant, and captures the small town talk and gossip perfectly. It left me a lot to think about, so let’s get to it.

First, the set is AMAZING… it’s the first thing you see entering the auditorium. I wanted to go up, walk around, and get a closer look. Don’t worry, I didn’t ๐Ÿ™‚ But, I did get a picture…

The colors are rich, the details down to the parking berms, the way the orchestra is positioned just so they blend in but are a part of the experience…this set is the best I’ve seen in a long time. The colors of the trees change during key moments of the show but the overall coziness of a small town grill and the way the cast uses the space is maximizes all the necessary elements of the story line. According to Laura Beck, the director, the set is designed up to 6 months before the show with designs sent to a local builder. They also have an engineer, fire marshal, and their technical director make sure it meets all safety requirements and such before construction. Then they have local professionals, such as builders, light and sound designers, costume designers, and scenic artists, work with student volunteers to build, paint, and dress the set with set pieces and props. Once the show is in production, the show is run by student crews and operators. How lucky are the students of the Corvallis High School Theatre Department to have these amazing adults volunteer their time?!

Second, the student orchestra. Incredible, excellent, magnificent! Led by student conductor, Adrian Hsieh, the orchestra includes: Andrea Pauls, piano 1; Elise Faux, piano 2; Lily Bakkom, violin; Sam Gregory, Cello; and Jack Martin, guitar. And listed in the program as subs: Evan Smouse, Joy Ueng, Annie Givens, Alicia Cheng. The music is beautiful and the student orchestra sounded so magnificent, it made me hopeful for the future of these musicians. Timing is everything in musical theatre and having the conductor and orchestra placed behind the actors is a bold choice, even for professionals. It requires a high level of trust between the conductor, actors, and musicians with the promise everyone is going to show up on time. I’m not talking about rehearsals, I’m talking about onstage during the show. Hitting the music cues, hitting the vocal cues, staying in tempo…all without being able to see each other. That trust is huge and the everyone in the production of Spitfire Grill makes good on their promise. The always amazing Jim Martinez oversaw the musical direction for The Spitfire Grill and is currently the Musical Director for Next To Normal at The Majestic,

Third, but certainly not least….the talented cast. This show is double cast to give “novice actors the chance to work with more experienced actors as their mentors” according to Laura Beck. The cast is broken into two groups: the Forest Cast which includes Alex Staben as Percy; Emma Nichols as Shelby; Abigayle Whitnah as Hannah; Forest Irvine as Joe; Nathan King as Caleb; Elise Steinberg as Effy; Nick Siriani as the visitor; and Finn Murphy, Kyra Cory & company rounding out the ensemble. The Forest cast performs Friday and Saturday evenings as well as Sunday matinees. The Trees cast includes the double cast roles: Colette LeJoie as Percy; Audrey Au as Shelby; Linnea Lovtang as Hannah; and Kristopher Grace as Effy. The Trees cast performs Saturday matinees ONLY.

I saw the Trees cast first and was blown away by the clarity and innocence of the vocal and acting performances. So strong bringing tears to my eyes at times I wasn’t expecting and a “good for your girl” exclamation from my seat. This cast put their heart and soul into their roles and it shows. Colette LeJoie as Percy opened the show with such vulnerability in her solo “Ring Around The Moon” only to show us the “take no crap girl with mushy insides” as the show progresses. Audrey Au as Shelby has a voice to bring tears to your eyes during “Wild Bird” and navigates Shelby’s character arc with the perfect mix of submission and boldness. Linnea Lovtang as Hannah was fun to watch as the older matriarch of the group. She has some great moments as the Spitfire Grill owner and strongest supporter of Percy. Kristopher Grace as Effy did not perform the matinee I attended. I was surprised later to find out these were the “novice” actors. I was equally surprised and frankly disappointed, the Trees cast are not getting equal performance opportunities. Not everyone can make the Saturday Matinee. A fact which I can attest to because I went to the first matinee of this show and the attendance was very small.

The Forest Cast includes Alex Staben as Percy who brings an entirely different energy to the story. Her vocals have more of a thick alto tone similar to her speaking voice which makes her performance more of steady ride instead of an emotional roller coaster. Strong, just not quite vulnerable. Emma Nichols plays Shelby as a young woman with a little more experience but still submissive to husband Caleb. Her vocals are strong with honest expression and when she delivers the laundry basket back to Caleb, she definitely gets a reaction from the audience. Abigayle Whitnah plays Hannah with a lot more sarcasm and less mothering than her counterpart. There were moments when the emotion in her vocals felt forced which took away but overall she did well.

Elise Steinberg as Effy for the performance I attended. I think she might have been type cast. ๐Ÿ™‚ I don’t know her personally, but she embodied Effy with so much confidence, that girl has a strong future in theatre if she wants it. (It was like watching the development of Lea Michele’s character Rachel on Glee…) Forest Irvine as Joe is sweet with the right mix of awkwardness while performing his civic duty. Nathan King as Caleb has quite the task as a controlling and bitter nephew. There are times when it feels like he pulls back when he should commit to the ugly moments; however, he carries the role and it’s complexity with grace and determination. Nick Siriani plays the mysterious visitor with just enough hesitancy and intensity to tell you all you need to know about his character. The ensemble supports without getting in the way which is vital for audience member like me. They supported the cast with their voices and interaction without taking away or distracting from the main cast members.

This show is VERY strong for a high school cast. The subject matter is difficult at times which they handle very well and the student led and performed orchestra was excellent. So, in case you haven’t figured it out by the time you get to this point in the article, do yourself–and these students– a favor. Buy tickets to TWO shows so you can see and support BOTH the Forest and the Trees casts. Then come back and tell me if I got my review right ๐Ÿ™‚ Click HERE for tickets and showtimes.

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