Horizon Theatre's The Spitfire Grill may be more enjoyable for what it isn't than for what it is.
It's a musical centered around a small-town diner, but features no Dellas or Dinettes, and no kitschy material about big hair or truck-driving clientele. It's an occasionally corny story about redemption, but it provides credibly wounded characters. It's a theatrical adaptation of a feature film, but it doesn't rely on evoking catchphrases or roles made famous by movie stars.
The Spitfire Grill proves more effective as a stage musical than Lee David Zlotoff's 1996 movie of the same name. The original film offered an uplifting message that felt squishy and unsubtle, but its broad strokes comfortably fit the musical structure developed by James Valcq and the late Fred Alley. It's hardly a groundbreaking work, but The Spitfire Grill plays to Horizon's strengths for catchy numbers and strong feminine messages.
The names remain heavily symbolic, beginning with a twentysomething woman named Perchance, or "Percy" (Andrea Studley), who finishes a five-year jail term and takes the bus to Gilead, Wis. She chose the town based on nothing more than a magazine photo of its autumn leaves, but she finds it an inhospitable, scarcely inhabited place upon arrival in February.
Percy gets a job and a roof over her head at the town's only eatery, The Spitfire Grill, run for 40 years by no-nonsense Hannah, whom Judy Leavell makes convincingly hostile and not "crusty" in a cute way. The gossipy tune "Something's Cooking at the Spitfire Grill" introduces Percy to new neighbors like Hannah's suspicious nephew Caleb (Randall Taylor) and his emotionally frail wife Shelby (Kristin Markiton).
When Hannah is injured, Percy must take over the Grill, and the play reveals a sense of humor with the frantic song "Out of the Frying Pan." Here Studley's desperate efforts in the kitchen are cleverly staged by director Heidi Cline as akin to a piece of "I Love Lucy" shtick. When Shelby lends Percy a hand, both women grow more confident and empowered.
While many small-town plays involve rallying to save a beloved local institution, Spitfire is the opposite, hinging on Hannah's wish to unload the diner. Percy suggests a national raffle, open to anyone who provides $100 and an essay on why they should own the Grill. In "The Colors of Paradise," the show's loveliest song, Percy and Shelby compose an ad extolling the virtues of the diner and the "one-dog town" in a way that's not dishonest but definitely qualifies as spin control.
Essays and envelopes come flooding in from across the nation, and some of the musical's best rhymes play off the American place names on return addresses. As strangers buy into the notion of Gilead as the embodiment of the heartland, so much good will suffuses the town that it begins living up to its own ideal.
Under the musical direction of Ann-Carol Pence, Spitfire hews to the simplicity of spare folk songs, and despite the rural setting and vaguely spiritual themes, Valcq admirably resists the slicker conventions of country or gospel tunes. Alley's lyrics, however, can be weak and predictable, the verses replete with pockets full of rye and not seeing the forest for the trees.
Horizon co-produces Spitfire with Duluth's Aurora Theatre, which will stage the play next season. The team-up pays off in finding winning little details in the show, like the way Tommy Cox's mountain backdrop evokes a Winslow Homer landscape. The current staging of The Spitfire Grill brings out the best in the material, which deserves to be remembered even as its cinematic source has been forgotten.