Simmer, Not Sizzle 

Uneven singing dampens the sparks from Porthouse's Spitfire Grill.

Sometimes it takes a stranger to enter your life at an opportune moment to give you a new perspective or bring your values into sharper focus. That's what happens in The Spitfire Grill, when a female ex-con named Percy decides to trek out to the bump-on-a-rock town of Gilead, Wisconsin, to find a little contentment and, incidentally, transform everyone else's lives. This pleasant little musical based on the 1996 film, now being staged at the Porthouse Theatre at Blossom Music Center, is a bit too cheery and tidy for its own good, lacking the bite of strong characters and real-time (not remembered) conflicts of substance.

Once in Gilead, Percy lands a job at the not-so-successful eatery of the title, which is owned by a crusty senior citizen named Hannah and populated by semi-colorful local denizens. Percy can't cook a lick, which she proves in the amusing song "Out of the Frying Pan," so she's rescued by Shelby, the meek wife of Caleb, the local macho man. Soon, we learn that sheriff Joe has a crush on Percy, that Hannah's son, Eli, went missing during Vietnam, and that Effy, the local snoop, will start an unfounded rumor faster than Fox News.

After Hannah (given a wryly acerbic turn by Lenne Snively) injures her leg in a fall, Percy and Shelby decide to help the old lady auction off her restaurant through an essay contest with a $100 fee per entry. Soon envelopes are flooding in, and it seems as if Hannah's money worries are over.

Authors James Valcq (music and book) and Fred Alley (lyrics and book) have composed a number of agreeable but similar-sounding tunes to move these stories forward, but few of them stand out. Part of the problem is that the company has only one pure singer, Kayce Cummings, who invests her songs -- particularly "Wild Bird" -- with hypnotic beauty. Snively also is affecting in "Forgotten Lullaby." But Lisa Marie Schueller doesn't have the vocal range to handle Percy's frequent numbers, and winds up nearly screeching what should have been an impassioned moment in "Shine." Eric van Baars is also vocally challenged as Caleb, but the damage is minimized, since he has only one solo.

Even the excellent performer MaryAnn Black seems brittle in her role as gossipy Effy. Although she generates laughs, her laser-precise techniques show through too obviously, making her character seem more like an acting specimen than a living, breathing person.

Gifted director Terri Kent tries her best to showcase this material, but one difficulty is that much of the important conflict happens offstage and earlier in time. For instance, Percy was put in jail for a heinous but defensible crime that we hear about only as a lukewarm memory. Song by song, this and all other conflicts are resolved, and when Hannah sings "Way Back Home," guess who shows up like a well-trained golden retriever?

At times, The Spitfire Grill is quite tender and enjoyably inoffensive. But overall, it's mostly just inoffensive.

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