Founded in 2014, the relatively new Refuge Theatre Project aspires to bring musical theater to creative spaces, accessible to broad audiences. It’s a commendable mission, and one the crowded Chicago theater scene could use; far be it from me to pooh-pooh any effort to put more musical theater in production.
That said, the company will have to try harder than their current production of The Spitfire Grill if they want to win over any hearts and minds of new and enthusiastic theatergoers. Based on less-than-impressive source material (a 1996 film that’s currently sitting at a rotten 33% on RottenTomatoes.com), the musical version, which premiered off Broadway in the days following September 11, unfortunately doesn’t do anything to improve a hollow story populated with characters we’re never quite convinced to care about.
RTP cleverly presents their production in an actual diner, the Windy City Cafe on the city’s near-West side. But Southern Gothic this is not. Crammed into one half of the dining room, the action plays out in front of a few booths on one wall while the audience shifts in their seats to avoid bumping into the actors as they rush about mere inches in front of you. The effort to be innovative about staging is instead claustrophobic, and as the committed cast belts out the numbers, one begins to understand why musicals are typically afforded more room to breathe. All the driving melodies and accompanying choreography need somewhere to go, and here there’s nowhere.
The Spitfire Grill centers on a young woman (Percy, played by Lauren Paris) recently released from prison (a five-year sentence) who lands in Gilead, Wisconsin, a picturesque small town where she’s determined to get her second chance. There, the town sheriff (Joe, played by Alex Christ) lands her a job waiting tables at the only diner in town, The Spitfire. The grill’s owner, Hannah (Katherine Condit), is slow to warm up to Percy, but town gossip Effy (Nicole Michell Haskins) is all too eager to dig up the dirt. Hannah’s nephew Caleb (Gerald Richardson) has struggled to sell the diner since the mines in Gilead closed and took the town down with them; his long-suffering wife Shelby (Emily Goldberg) takes a job at the diner much to his backwards, chauvinistic chagrin.
The saving grace of this misguided production, ironically, is the musical talent of the relatively young cast, each clearly intensely committed to their craft to take on roles here. One imagines in a few years time, as they’ve moved on to larger stages and better scripts, they’ll look back and laugh at that one time they did a musical in a diner. Because the reality is, even though they can each carry a tune, the acting is off the mark by at least a few degrees. Was it the director’s choice to give these residents of the vanilla midwest southern accents? The result of some soul-searching character work during rehearsals? Whatever the case, it doesn’t work.
Neither does the storyline. By the end of the first act, we still don’t know why Percy was in jail in the first place, and plans to raffle off the diner, since no one seems interested in buying it, are flimsy at best. When the reason for her incarceration becomes clear in the beginning of the second act, it’s so outlandish a reason, one wonders why she only got five years for her crime. It’s always commendable when a story aims to raise the stakes—in a narrative arc, it’s the only thing that can get an audience to really invest in a story. And yet, it’s a fine alchemy to get all those variables of the narrative to add up so that the stakes feel worth it. The Spitfire Grill has not sorted that chemistry.
In an effort to find a silver lining in this less-than-impressive production, allow me two observations. First, as a young production company willing to try something new and take risks in their productions, one can be optimistic that Refuge Theatre Project will find its footing before long and truly live up to its ambitions. And second: now I have a new weekend brunch spot to check out at the corner of Milwaukee and Ogden.
Refuge Theatre Project’s The Spitfire Grill runs through May 5 at the Windy City Cafe, weekend performances only. Tickets are $30, available here.