The “Spitfire Grill” is a must see

With temperatures near zero and winds blowing the newly fallen snow, theatre-goers braved the cold to attend the musical, “Spitfire Grill.” The warm lights of the theatre greeted the audience, and everyone settled in for what they hoped would be a delightful evening.

The set rose from the pit and looked like some of those southwestern Wisconsin diners that I visited as a child with my parents. The multiple levels, compact nature, and the clean, yet worn, rustic look made the setting believable. Even the costumes of jeans and flannel shirts were simply appropriate. The lighting enhanced the set; seasons were brought to life with the colorful gels. Ray Rhoades, musical director, brought in an ensemble like none other. The variety of instruments made for an interesting mix of tones and richness, a unexpected surprise. With all, we were customers sitting in and listening to the characters’ unfold their lives. All night, however, I kept craving a lousy cup of diner coffee.

The story line is the essence of life in a small, forgotten town. Every character had his or her flaws and his or her celebratory moments. Together, they bring out the strength and pride that all small towns claim. The message rode like a roller coaster, like real life. 

Beginning the production, “A Ring Around the Moon,” sung by Percy (Laurie Dillman) made the crowd sit up and take notice. Dillman’s voice has a mature, rich tonal quality that pairs well with Blue Grass music. Percy could have been played as a one-dimensional character– a down-and-out woman trying to improve her life; however, Dillman’s portrayal was more like an onion– a woman wanting a fresh start, layer one; a vulnerable girl who has served time, layer two; a child with a history of abuse from her step-father, layer three; a young woman who wants to be accepted, maybe even liked by others, layer four. Her interactions with cast members made the musical gel.

Effy (Michelle Bestul), the town gossip, was beloved with her quick wit and sparkling facial expressions. With humor, details are everything, and Bestul nailed them. From her swagger and her 1980s out-of-date fashion sense to the excessive amount of sugar in her coffee, the lines spoken and the songs sung were perfection.

Shelby, the unappreciated wife (Hannah Benton), was nothing but flawless. Her song, “When Hope Grows”, stole the show. This angelic voice brought home the message that life can get better in this place where they “roll up the sidewalks at night.” She and Dillman made a delightful team of young businesswomen growing in their positions. Disasters in the kitchen drew rolling laughter and, when they had a cooking success, you cheered inside.

Audience members rooted for Caleb (Daniel Hannell) to change his attitude toward his wife, his position in life, and his home town. He taught the audience that a person can never have a rich life by trying to be someone he or she is not. In addition, he has an excellent voice for Blue Grass music. Way to go, Daniel!

Hanna Ferguson (Sue Kaiser) embraced her position as a failing businesswoman, a broken mother, and a widow who has lost all hope. I always love Kaiser’s performances. She made the audience laugh at her sharp southwestern Wisconsin wit, and she made you tear up with songs like “Forgotten Lullaby” and “Way Back Home.” It was the richness in her voice coupled with her seasoned stage presence that made Hannah believable. I know “Hannah” from my childhood; Kaiser was real. 

The Visitor (Kyle Schwanke) gave the plot an additional twist. Without lines and with few opportunities, Schwanke developed his character well and to the fullest. This character was a device to get mom to stay in Gilead and for Caleb to work hard to please others. The playwrights could have easily dropped The Visitor and maintained the story line’s integrity.

In my experiences in Sheboygan theatre, there is no better actor than Kirt Graves. His development of Sheriff Joe Sutter, a crusty officer of the law evolved into a man who saw promise in his hometown and found love, seemed natural. Kirt’s voice is velvet and blended well with all the cast members who joined him in song. From productions in high school, college and now as a young adult, Graves remains a solid Thespian. 

The glue that held the actors, set, lighting, music and all that makes a performance come to life was director, Robert Marra. Sheboygan is blessed to have such a creative man in its midst. Only directors know the countless hours and sleepless nights that it takes to make a show special, memorable… a hit! The effort spent paid off, sir. Thank you.

The audience left the theatre saying, “That was great!”; “What a performance!”; “I never had so much fun at a musical!” All true– – – Then, the winter wind slapped us back into reality, and we longed for the song, “Ice and Snow… Will this winter ever end?” I smiled and remembered that I, along with the rest of the audience, cast and crew, “own a little piece of paradise”– this home we call Wisconsin.

Lynne Zimmermann would be proud of what the Sheboygan Theatre Company did in her memory. The “Spitfire Grill” is a must see. Just bring your own cup of coffee.

Respectfully submitted,
Jenni Pickel
Language Arts teacher, theatre buff and southwestern Wisconsin native 

(They didn’t know that when asked me to review “Spitfire.”)