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'Spitfire Grill' best 'show you never heard of'

TITG production brings review team to tears


Photo Credit: COURTESY PHOTO - Shelby, played by Jennifer Yamashiro, is explains to Percy, played by Jessica Reed, something important about Hannahs son, Eli.It is not often that a play inspires audience members to seek out and thank the director at show’s end.

Theatre in the Grove’s current production of "The Spitfire Grill" is just such a production. TITG veteran director Darren Hurley has achieved a long-held dream by bringing this powerful musical to Forest Grove, and he has assembled a cast, orchestra and production crew worthy of his vision.

"The Spitfire Grill" by James Valcq and Fred Alley, based on Lee David Zlotoff’s film of the same name, is one of the best shows you never heard of; once seen, it is a show you will never forget.

Percy Talbot, a young woman just released from prison, hops a bus to Gilead, Wisc., because she fell in love with a photo of the fall leaves in a travel magazine. Gilead turns out to be a minute hamlet, depressed by the closure of the local quarry and stranded by the re-routing of the interstate.

Percy gets a job at the only diner in town, the Spitfire Grill, which owner Hannah Ferguson has been trying unsuccessfully to sell for more than a decade. Percy and local housewife Shelby Thorpe cook up a scheme to raffle off the grill, and this plan forms the skeleton of the show.

Jessica Reed’s powerful performance as Percy anchors a truly amazing cast. Her strong and beautiful voice sells a series of complex and emotional ballads; her acting is impeccable. Jeanna Van Dyke as Hannah gives the vocal and dramatic performance of a lifetime. Reed and Van Dyke literally brought us (and the people around us) to tears at one point in the second act.

Jennifer Yamashiro as Shelby is the third musketeer in this dynamic diner triumvirate. Her lovely voice lends a bluesy touch to her solos, and she masterfully navigates her character’s transition from shy sparrow to confident eagle.

The fourth woman in the cast, Melanie Shaw — as local gossip/postmistress Effie Krayneck — skillfully lends an occasional and much needed touch of comic relief.

The show’s three men — Justin Canfield as police officer Joe Sutter, James Grimes as Shelby’s husband Caleb Thorpe, and Thomas Robinson as the Visitor — round out the cast with their distinctive characterizations of a lonely male ingénue, a depressed and controlling bully and a mysteriously silent vagrant. Canfield, who does superb double duty as vocal director, is believable as the upstanding and sympathetic local cop.

In the belligerent “Ice and Snow,” Canfield, Grimes and Shaw form a powerful trio that captures the town’s desperate plight, while Canfield’s duet with Reed in “This Wide Woods” displays his character’s romantic side. Grimes, whose huge voice in “Digging Stone” clearly demonstrates the breadth and depth of his frustration, provides some of the show’s best vocal moments. Despite the absence of any songs or dialogue, Robinson’s mute performance is as eloquent as any on the stage, especially in the scene where he and Percy watch the sun rise over Gilead.

Under the direction of pianist Ingrid Unterseher, the five-piece orchestra is so good that we occasionally found ourselves watching the musicians as they interpreted the score — especially the interplay between fiddler and cellist.

The set design and evocative lighting obviate the need for scene changes — multiple levels, spotlights and colored gels convey movement of the principals as well as the shifting seasons.

"The Spitfire Grill" is community theater at its best, and fully merits the attention of audiences from the entire Portland-metro area as well as enthusiastic local support.

Theatre in the Grove’s production of "The Spitfire Grill" runs through Sunday, March 15, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 2:30.

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