If you want to experience a feel-good story on stage - a musical that doesn't quite seem like it's a musical - then head up the hill to catch Sierra Repertory Theatre's "The Spitfire Grill," which runs through Oct. 27 at the East Sonora stage.
Audiences will find themselves thoroughly enjoying the voice that comes out of the play's lead, actress Elizabeth McMonagle, as well as her convincing portrayal of Percy Talbot, who has been released from prison and stepping into tiny Gilead, Wisc., in search for a new life. Percy picks the sleepy town to start her new life after gazing upon a scenic picture of a nearby creek featured in a travel brochure while behind bars. But she quickly meets the town's dispirited citizenry - they are tired of their own routines and ready to get out - while working at the local café. Despite a rather tenuous start, Percy eventually wins the heart of Spitfire Grill operator Hannah and other towns folk. Through the newcomer's eyes, the town starts to realize that Gilead is an idyllic place to live.
"This whole piece is so human and has so much love, compassion and empathy," said SRT Artistic Director Scott Viets. "It's about a broken town, broken relationships, people who are discouraged and withdrawn finding a kind of redemption and new hope. One person arrives and is able to start a transformation."
It's a gradual process, Viets said, and the music - a blend of bluegrass, folk and Broadway - supports the nature of the story, as characters grow and begin to heal.
Tough-shelled at first, Percy eventually shares the dark secrets behind her incarceration after proving herself to a town that looks upon her in a judgmentally wary fashion. The characters she encounters all share their hopelessness to break the bonds of the town. One of those wanting out is the young sheriff, Joe, (SRT newcomer Evan Faram), who is also her parole officer. Another is Hannah, broken down by years of work at the Spitfire, who can't find a buyer for her eatery.
Percy's determination to succeed and her indomitable spirit eventually gain the affections of all who come into contact with her. Hannah gains hope that she'll one day escape the Grill when it's suggested by Percy to hold a nationwide raffle where entrants pay $100 and write an essay about why they want the little business. A flood of letters come in, with hundreds writing about how much they want to escape to the idyllic place described in the ad. As the players read the letters - many of them sung in snippets - Hannah, Joe and their neighbors come to realize what they have through others' eyes, and catch that spirit of hope.
SRT favorite Becky Saunders (Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, Church Basement Ladies) is a perfect fit in her role as crusty Hannah.
The inspiring story and interesting supporting cast allows the audience to perhaps ponder the good of their own towns. Suzanne Petrela is Percy's shy co-worker Shelby who has a lovely singing voice. M.J. Jurgensen returns to SRT as Effy, the town busybody and postmaster whose oversized glasses add to her comedic persona. Jurgensen delighted audiences earlier this season as Vi Petty, the wife of record producer Norm Petty in SRT'sBuddy: The Buddy Holly Story, nearly stealing the show with impromptu dance moves.
The stage, set up in a unique way where there are no changes, was designed by Los Angeles' Jay Heiserman, an Emmy-winning art director for The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Dramatic lighting is effective in taking the audience outside for wintery scenes for some scenes.
The Spitfire Grill opened Oct. 4 and plays Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturday evening performances are at 8 and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees begin at 2. A "talk back" discussion with the director and cast will be held after the evening performance on Thursday, Oct. 17. Ticket prices range from $24 to $32 and are available by calling the Box Office at 209-532-3120 or by visiting www.sierrarep.org.