The Spitfire Grill runs on corn | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

The Spitfire Grill runs on corn 

American Blues Theater’s production finds some honesty amid the musical cliches.

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Courtesy the artist

Boy, oh boy, the residents of tiny Gilead, Wisconsin, need some hope. Good thing they're living in a musical. You see, greedy loggers swooped in a while back and cleared out all the mature trees in the local forest. Then the quarry where many residents worked shut down. But since dramatizing the effects of a sweeping regional economic downturn is patently beyond the reach of this quaint 2001 musical's creators (music and book by James Valcq, lyrics and book by Fred Alley), they pin the town's crippling despair on the disappearance of the town's favorite son during the Vietnam war a couple decades back. Now along comes tough-but-vulnerable young ex-con Percy, released to the care of Gilead's sheriff for reasons that never make much sense. She starts waiting tables at the title diner, run by tough-but-vulnerable old Hannah (Catherine Smitko), and through a series of Capraesque implausibilities, which also involve the town's preternaturally unliberated housewife Shelby (Dara Cameron), everyone finds civic pride.

How all the newly planted flower boxes and freshly painted house fronts will pay anyone's bills is left unanswered, thanks to the dramaturgical expediency typical of the American musical. Setting fundamental credulity aside, the show is tight, tuneful, and, under Tammy Mader's direction for American Blues Theater, impressively multidimensional. Best of all, Jacquelyne Jones as Percy never hits a false note in a role riven with cliches. Her exquisite vocal control lets her convey moments of delicate intimacy and full-throttle outrage with equal clarity.   v

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