'Spitfire Grill'

Heather Buck, Suzi Gilbert, and Sara Griner star in ‘Spitfire Grill’ in the Sonoma Arts Live production at Andrews Hall in Sonoma

Miller Oberlin

Sonoma Arts Live is serving up a blue-plate special of musical talent at the “Spitfire Grill”, its current production at Andrews Hall in Sonoma.

I’ll get to the story in a bit, but I wanted to highlight the production and performance talent. As soon as you enter the theater, you are treated to an innovative and efficient set that includes a café and an exterior that includes the most amazing white birch trees native to the area where the play is set. Bravo to set designer Bill Kauffman. The lighting is creatively designed and executed. Kudos to director, Michael Ross, for assembling and leading this team of designers, actors, and musicians for this show.

From the moment the play opens, you know you are in for a musical tour de force. Sarah Griner as the central character Percy sings a most haunting and powerful song in “Ring Around the Moon”. Her strong voice is perfect for the music for the show, which is drawn from Appalachian Folk Music but also has a Cajun influence, all effectively played by only 5 instruments, led by Music Director Sherrill Peterson. It is a most challenging score and requires a huge range by the singers.

Heather Buck, (Shelby), delivers a gentleness and vulnerability in her beautiful upper range soprano voice. Griner’s lower register harmonized beautifully with Buck. Musical newcomer Rusty Thompson, (Caleb), claims to have only sung in the shower and one other musical prior but this young man’s natural talent left me wanting to hear more of his powerful and soulful musical theater voice.

Veteran musical performer Suzi Gilbert, (Hannah) delivers the most emotional songs in “Forgotten Lullaby” and “Way Back Home” that left not a dry eye in the house. Gilbert has a certain honesty in her voice that is needed in her role. Albert McLeod (Sheriff Sutter) showed his vocal chops, as did the always delightful Karen Pinomaki (Effy).

The play is adapted from the movie of the same name about a young woman (Percy) just released from prison who moves to the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin to start anew. She is under the eye of the town sheriff, who acts as her parole officer. She has had a rough life and has built up high walls to keep people at bay. The Sheriff gets her a job at the only diner in town, The Spitfire Grill, where she meets the other characters. The town is dying since the highway bypassed it and so is the grill. Its owner, Hannah, wants to sell it but no one is interested. Percy comes up with an idea to raffle off the grill for $100 a pop. Each entry would include an essay on why the contestant wants the grill. Around this central plot theme other stories emerge.

The acting performances may have suffered some from the reliance on long songs to tell the story and weaknesses in the script but a couple of standouts overcame the obstacles. Karen Pinomaki, delivered a perfect performance as “Effy”, the Postmistress who is also the town gossip, (bad combination). Pinomaki is one of the best comedic actors in the North Bay and did not disappoint in this role.

Gilbert’s Spitfire Grill owner “Hannah” was hardened but still revealed a deep wounded spirit and vulnerability. She showed layers of motivation lacking in some of the other performances. Finally, rave kudos to Sam Starr as the “Visitor”, a mute young man living in the woods behind the café. Without ever speaking one word of dialogue, Starr grabbed our hearts and our curiosity from the moment we saw him, communicating volumes with only his face and body. That is acting at its finest. His final scene with Hannah is worth the price of admission.

I mentioned earlier the script had some weaknesses. It was like watching a film that was poorly edited. The individual scenes were good but there was little connective tissue between characters. It didn’t take time to develop the relationships so that we could understand why things happen. It may be that the authors, James Valcq and Fred Alley, took so much time showcasing the songs there was no time left for character development. Sometimes, good acting can overcome this, and I wish Griner had shown us just a glimpse of Percy’s humanity and hope, even while playing angry and defensive for most of the play.

The audience loved it. It is such an exceptional musical and visual experience, it should not be missed. The play runs until Sept. 24. Tickets available at the box office, or go to sonomaartslive.org for tickets and information.