American Blues Theater’s latest offering doesn’t just touch your heart; it enfolds your soul in warmth and caresses you with its humanity. Like the song that one character sings, this production “Shines.”
It’s impossible to experience this folksy musical without shedding a tear or feeling a lump in your throat. At its core, this little musical is a celebration of the simple things in life.
With music by James Valcq, lyrics by Fred Alley and a book co-adapted by both artists from the film of the same name, this is a warm, heartfelt story of redemption and hope. It’s a show we could all use right now because it’s so positive.
The composers eschewed a big, brassy score to instead create a gentle mixture of folk, country, pop and bluegrass spiced with just a touch of Celtic influence
Musical director Malcolm Ruhl brings the lovely score to life on accordion, with Ian Paul Custer on piano, Greg Hirte on violin, Scott Sedlacek on guitar/mandolin and Magdalena Sustere on cello. Although told primarily through its music, the simple tale rejoices in its quieter, more reflective moments.
Director Tammy Mader really understands this musical and demonstrates, once again, why she’s become one of Chicago’s preeminent directors. Staged with sincerity and artistry, Mader takes us on an emotional journey that audiences aren’t likely to forget. She creates some gorgeous stage pictures, allowing movement to flow organically.
Like the season during which the play begins, the attitudes of this small town are initially cold and guarded. But, like Spring, the weather and people in Gilead soon begin to warm up. Color, light and love gradually fill the stage.
In this intimate Stage 773 venue, actors are never very far from the audience. The line between theatergoer and actor seems to disappear as patrons become comfortable and feel like almost a part of the story.
This is thanks, in part, to Sarah E. Ross’ rustic scenic design within a forest setting. Jared Gooding’s mood-altering lighting design conveys the earthiness along with the changing Wisconsin seasons. Costumer Lily Grace Walls has designed a realistic wardrobe for the characters, at first in earth tones of brown beige, and eventually bursting with color and patterns like the town itself.
The cast is exceptional. Each actor brings personality and honesty to his or her character. Their powerful voices are filled with pain, healing and, ultimately, blissful happiness.
The always splendid Jacquelyne Jones carries the show playing tough, ex-con Percy Talbott. As her own tragic story begins to blend with the suspicious, gossiping folks around her, Percy’s protective walls start to crumble and secrets are revealed.
The magnificently talented Catherine Smitko is doing some of her finest work in this production. She’s feisty, but real, grounded and humane as Hannah, the bitter, yet motherly owner of the Spitfire Grill.
And lovely Dara Cameron is shy, touchingly withdrawn and emotionally battered as Shelby. Her performance is at once heartbreaking and hopeful. Shelby provides the gentle friendship to Percy that helps the young woman to soften and trust again.
Together, these three talented actresses are transcendent and provide the heart and soul of this production.
All three actresses display excellent, expressive, professionally-trained voices. Jacquelyne Jones’ “A Ring Around the Moon,” which opens the play, is stunning. Dara Cameron’s exquisite “When Hope Goes” tells how the town and its residents have changed over the years. The two women share their hopes and dreams in the wonderful “The Colors of Paradise.” In “Forgotten Lullaby,” Catherine Smitko’s Hannah discovers the deep-rooted feelings and haunting memories that she’s buried for years.
Completing the cast are handsome Donterrio Johnson as Joe, the town sheriff and Percy’s parole officer. He beautifully sings of his own wishes for the future in “This Wide Woods.”
Karl Hamilton plays Caleb, Shelby’s abusive husband, a bitter man who lives in the shadow of an MIA war hero. His melancholy can also be attributed to losing his job after the local quarry closed (“Digging Stone”). Ian Paul Custer is gentle and touching as the mysterious Stranger, a role guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye. And Gabrielle Lott-Rogers is very funny as Effy, the town’s nosy, outspoken postmistress and effusive gossip-monger.
Mader’s production is simply wonderful. It’s pitch perfect in every way, from her magnificently talented cast, to her creative team who help bring the show to life. She presents a heartfelt story with characters and music as cozy and welcoming as comfort food, the perfect anecdote to all the negativity that surrounds us today.
This is really a must-see production, a tale told by a gifted theatre company that absolutely “Shines.”
DETAILS: “The Spitfire Grill” is at American Blues Theater at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago through August 17. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. For tickets and other information call (773) 654-3103 or visit American Blues Theater.
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