The lazy evenings of late summer are perfect for "The Spitfire Grill," a laid-back and simple musical now onstage at the Lazy Susan Dinner Theatre.
It's heartfelt and homespun, a straightforward story of hope and deliverance held together by a folksy, sentimental score. Based on Lee David Zlotoff's non-musical 1996 film, it was adapted and wrapped in music by James Valcq and Fred Alley in 2000.
The grill of the title is a refuge where an unlikely trio of women and the men in their lives break free from constraints both literal and figurative. The central role is Percy, a young woman seeking a new life, played by Lazy Susan regular Stephanie Lee Dillard. Percy is fresh out of prison on parole, attracted to what she believes is the idyllic small Wisconsin town of Gilead, a picture of which she once glimpsed in a magazine. She lands a job at the grill, which turns out to be one of the few businesses still operating in an economically depressed, dying community.
"The Spitfire Grill" also highlights the journey of Shelby Thorpe, played by charismatic Kristen Jepperson, from a woman of low self-esteem living in her domineering husband's shadow to her emergence as his equal partner. Shelby's journey may seem more prominent here than in other productions because Jepperson's performance is so vivid.
Although it's a musical, the show has no dancing, chorus lines or big production numbers. It begins with a New Age-inspired sensibility: Dillard sings a cappella in darkness until the lights come up. She is then joined by a lightly played piano (the score is recorded) in the haunting "A Ring Around the Moon," which introduces this damaged, hardened young woman who seeks a new start. The score soon warms into a light country flavor, starting, stopping and repeating around snatches of dialogue. Instrumental passages often continue under conversations or punctuate moments that have no dialogue.
There are dashes of folk music and even a few blues-inspired melodies, along with tender ballads such as "Wild Bird," sung by Jepperson, and "Forgotten Lullaby," sung the night the show was reviewed by familiar Lazy Susan performer Jade Banks as Hannah, the aging and crusty grill proprietor with the requisite soft side.
Banks also leads the company in the lively Act 2 opener "Come Alive Again." The closest thing to a production number is the charmingly comic "Something's Cookin' at the Spitfire Grill," sung by the company as Percy and Shelby sling hash in place of dance choreography.
The menfolk get in their licks, too. Director Hans Bachman played Sheriff Joe Sutter the night the show was reviewed, joining Dillard for some powerful vocal passages in the duet "This Wide Woods," as the lawman begins to fall for the ex-jailbird. Joe Dodd, as disgruntled chauvinistic husband Caleb Thorpe, displays a soaring voice in "Digging Stone." Even the town gossip, Effy, played with piquant energy by Krissy Doyle the night the show was reviewed, gets to shine in a couple of tunes.
Although some parts are played by several actors in rotation, Dillard and Jepperson are scheduled for every performance, as are Dodd and, in a small but critical role, Christopher Damanda.
Dillard vibrantly portrays Percy's journey from prison to a new world of caring friends, dealing along the way with guilt, insecurity and loneliness, throwing off the chains on her heart and learning about friendship and love. The message is uplifting, the score lovely.
Warm but never cloying, "The Spitfire Grill" is welcome relief from the same old Broadway musicals many theaters dust off each summer.
"The Spitfire Grill" will be performed through Oct. 3 by the Lazy Susan Dinner Theatre, Route 1 at Furnace Road, Woodbridge. For the schedule, reservations, dining information or directions, call 703-550-7384 or go to www.lazysusan.com.