THE SPITFIRE GRILL
lyrics and book by Fred Alley music and book by James Valco.
Union Theatre 204 Union Street SE1 0LX To 15 August 2015.
Tue-Sat 7.30pm. Mat Sat & Sun 3pm.
Runs 2hr One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7261 9876.
Review: William Russell 25 July.
Great score, fine cast, shame about the book.
Melodious and beautifully performed, this off-Broadway musical comes with the blessing of Stephen Sondheim – he gave it the 2001 Richard Rogers Production Award – and is given an imaginative production by director Alistair Knights.
Based on Lee David Zlotoff’s 1966 film, on the way from screen to stage something has gone wrong, and as almost always with musicals it is the book, which makes no psychological sense.
Characters switch from being one kind of person to someone totally different at the drop of a semiquaver while the Wisconsin town of Gilead changes from deeply depressed rural America to a demi-Eden of white picket fences and plain folks just getting along fine on apple pie, crackers and homespun wisdom.
However, James Valco’s score is tuneful and inventive, and the cast could not be bettered. Belinda Wollaston as the heroine, Percy, a killer on parole who gets a job at embittered widow Hannah Ferguson’s Spitfire Grill, has the power both of voice and personality to carry the show.
Not that she is required to do so single-handed; Hilary Harwood as Hannah is just as good. Both get big numbers, have big voices and deliver the goods big time.
But why Percy turns from a butch, scared and difficult killer into little Mary Sunshine as the result of becoming a waitress and cook in a run-down diner is hard to fathom, as is the transformation, under her influence, of her employer from embittered old crone into Aunt Eller from Oklahoma.
The same goes for downtrodden Shelby, married to Hilary’s embittered nephew Caleb, who somehow discovers a woman can do what a woman has to do – not necessarily what her man demands.
One moment we are in Twin Peaks country where nasty things lurk in the woods, the next in the sun-kissed world of Saturday Evening Post magazine covers.
But the score ensures two hours of pleasure and there is good work from Natalie Law as Shelby, Hans Rye as the embittered Caleb, Chris Kelly as the friendly neighbourhood sheriff and Katie Brennan as the inquisitive gossip-mongering postmistress, to back-up the two leads.
Percy Talbot: Belinda Wollaston.
Shelby Thorpe: Natalie Law.
Hannah Ferguson: Hilary Harwood.
Sheriff Joe Stutter: Chris Kiely.
Caleb Thorpe: Hans Rye.
Effy Krayneck: Katie Brennan.
The Visitor: Andrew Borthwick.
Director: Alastair Knights.
Lighting: Jack Weir.
Musical Director: Simon Holt.
Choreographer: Lee Crowley.