‘Spit­fire’ brings spir­ited cast, mu­sic to UH the­ater

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - LOCAL - Re­view by Wayne Harada

“The Spit­fire Grill,” an in­spi­ra­tional and ac­ces­si­ble mu­si­cal about bruised souls seek­ing re­demp­tion and ac­cep­tance, is an aus­pi­cious opener for Kennedy Theatre’s 2017-18 sea­son. The the­ater, on the Univer­sity of Hawaii cam­pus op­po­site the East-West Cen­ter, fi­nally has re­opened af­ter be­ing shut­tered for largely in­fra­struc­ture up­dates like LED lights. The fa­cil­ity’s in­side looks the same, with its bur­gundy seats and warm wooden wall slats.

But this largely un­known off-Broad­way mu­si­cal, set in Gilead, Wis., de­serves sup­port and in­spec­tion. It’s brim­ming with de­light­ful per­for­mances from a spir­ited cast and soul-stir­ring, home­spun, coun­try-folk mu­sic de­liv­ered by a ter­rific combo that el­e­vates the pro­duc­tion from or­di­nary to ex­tra­or­di­nary.

The story spins around a young woman named Percy

Tal­bot (played with gusto by Jorin Young), just re­leased from prison and clearly seek­ing a clean life, who is hired at a mod­est restau­rant owned by an ag­ing, can­tan­ker­ous Han­nah Fer­gu­son (Chris­tine Lam­born, ap­pro­pri­ately bossy), who pro­vides fod­der for towns­folk to gos­sip and shed un­wanted scru­tiny on Percy. Every­one in this tight com­mu­nity has bag­gage and some­thing to hide. The sher­iff, Joe Sut­ter (Jeff Brack­ett, phys­i­cally cute and charm­ing), also is Percy’s pa­role of­fi­cer who found her the grill job, and is ea­ger to ac­quire wood­land but has other as­pi­ra­tions. Caleb Thorpe (Akea Kahik­ina, play­ing a con­trol freak) is the prob­lem­atic nephew of Han­nah and hus­band of Shelby Thorpe (Rachael Uyeno, a bit mousy but even­tu­ally self-con­fi­dent), who is a per­fect work­place side­kick for Percy at the Spit­fire.

Then there’s the town’s snoop and mail courier, Effy Kray­neck (Emily Stew­ard, spot-on nosy and nim­ble), who makes every­one’s busi­ness hers.

A mys­te­ri­ous Vis­i­tor (Keita Beni, who could be a poster boy for home­less­ness), ap­pears sev­eral times to re­trieve a nightly loaf of bread left on a tree stump by the grill. You find out why in the de­noue­ment, and also how the Spit­fire be­comes a sta­bi­liz­ing in­sti­tu­tion in this tight com­mu­nity.

The show, which orig­i­nally ran in post-9/11 New York, res­onated with au­di­ences and crit­ics, and pro­vided com­fort and a sense of com­mu­nity amid the tur­bu­lent and un­cer­tainty of ter­ror­ism. As di­rected by Lu­rana Don­nels O’Mal­ley, the mes­sage from the Amer­i­can heart­land as in­ter­preted by the ac­tors can also be em­braced in the cur­rent cli­mate of op­pres­sion of women, the stigma of a tainted past, the dizzi­ness of pol­i­tics, the is­sues of sex­ual abuse and vi­o­lence, the wave of hate crimes and even the fury of Mother Na­ture.

The feel-good fi­nale is akin to the cur­rent Broad­way hit, “Come From Away,” which specif­i­cally deals with hu­mankind bond­ing fol­low­ing 9/11.

Ike Web­ster, pi­anist and mu­si­cal di­rec­tor, fronts a five-mem­ber ensem­ble with savvy ar­range­ments cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the folksy charm of the set­ting, en­abling the James Valcq-Fred Al­ley score (tune­ful, time­less, just plain ter­rific) to en­rich the view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Young and Uyeno are par­tic­u­larly out­stand­ing in their “The Col­ors of Par­adise” duet — cap­tur­ing a sense of hope and place — and earned hur­rahs and shouts of “brava.” And scenic de­signer Rachel Fil­beck cre­ates a warm and homey set of the grill, sep­a­rat­ing the space in three tiers, to pro­duce a pris­tine big pic­ture of a lit­tle kitchen, space for a cou­ple of din­ing ta­bles, and an up­per loft home zone with a comfy, un­fin­ished wooden adobe ac­cented with hang­ing open win­dows. And ut­terly joy­ous: Her back­drop scrim is a kalei­do­scope of shift­ing hues and moods in a huge half-moon vis­ual — some­times shim­mer­ing, some­times sober­ing — to truly punc­tu­ate and il­lu­mi­nate the show.


Rachael Uyeno, left, stars as Shelby Thorpe and Jorin Young as Percy Tal­bot in “The Spit­fire Grill” at Kennedy Theatre, which plays through Sept. 25.

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