Ocala Civic Theatre’s new show is heartwarming and hopeful.
“Autumn colors along Copper Creek near Gilead, Wisconsin.” The description of the photo she literally ripped from the pages of a travel book sounds like paradise to Percy Talbott. That’s why the young woman chose the small town of Gilead as her destination when she was released from prison. But she’s seeing it with fresh eyes, and the people who have spent their whole lives there seem to have grown immune to their hometown’s natural beauty. The town sheriff, now Percy’s reluctant parole officer, can’t understand why an outsider would relocate to “a place for leaving, not coming to.”
“The Spitfire Grill” is “not a typical musical,” according to Greg Thompson, the musical’s director and Ocala Civic Theatre (OCT) executive and artistic director. He explained that, instead of relying on big production numbers and a large ensemble, the story- and character-driven musical features strong writing, both musically and dramatically.
“As I sat watching a recent rehearsal, I was so taken with how talented the cast is and how much I love the diversity of ages and types within the group,” Thompson said, calling the show a “beautiful fable.” The musical, which debuted off-Broadway in 2001, is based on the 1996 film of the same name that won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award.
The cast of seven harmonizes through 16 musical numbers, accompanied by music director Jason Bartosic on keyboard leading a four-piece orchestra: Audrey Flechas on violin, Alexandra Lehner-Morin on viola, Kristy Nolasco on cello and Scott Nadenik on guitar/mandolin.
“It’s exciting to have a live orchestra for a show, but especially for this one because of the flavor; it’s contemporary folk,” Bartosic said, calling it “a heartwarming, feel-good show filled with journey and transition.”
Percy lands a job at the town’s only eatery, the Spitfire Grill, presumably named for the airplane the owner’s late husband flew in World War II. The set, designed by scenic designer Mihai Ciupe, evokes fond memories of the quintessential premillennial diner, with its antique Coca-Cola sign, chrome counter stools and kitschy ceramic chicken on the shelf next to the wall phone with requisite phone book. The impressive projections by guest projection designer Tyler Stentiford bring movement and life to the set, along with the changing of seasons, highlighted masterfully by guest lighting designer Will Elphingstone.
“I was really excited when I first saw the rendering of the set,” said Elphingstone, who is based in New York and recently was the assistant lighting designer for “Spamalot” on Broadway. He’s returning to Ocala after designing lighting for “Into the Breeches” last year and said he enjoys the environment at OCT, where he can “be more chill and have more freedom to make choices.”
“It’s a nice change of pace. It’s great,” he said. “I was excited when I first saw the rendering of the set with those giant windows. It’s perfect for morning light to come pouring through. It’s a really great, realistic set where it’s easy to shift from the realism of Gilead to the more enhanced space in the songs. It’s a really smooth, natural flow we go through. The show takes us over the course of the year, so we hit all the seasons. And if you think about light in your own life, it changes throughout the year as the sun goes up and down, and the colors and tone and the feel. If you go outside and observe, you can notice the difference. So I think this is a great canvas to bring that to the stage.”
Although the play begins with Percy’s literal journey to Gilead and rides on her wave of hope, the other characters are on their own life journeys, too. Martie McLean, returning to the OCT stage after many years, plays a tough Hannah who’s used to keeping her tender side under wraps and has seen a lot of loss but still has some love to give. Kelsey Plante, last seen at OCT in 2021’s “All Together Now,” is a kindhearted Shelby learning to speak up for herself. Janik Buranosky, on the heels of performances in “Witch” and “Sweeney Todd,” brings a youthful energy to the role of the small-town sheriff who learns to see his family homestead in a new light. Adrienne Hebert, last seen as Johanna in “Sweeney Todd,” is the fresh-faced survivor Percy, who, against the odds, never gives up hope.
OCT newcomer Christian Cardoso, as the expressively silent visitor; A.J. Harding, humorous and melodic as nosy neighbor Effy; and Daniel Roscoe, bringing emotional depth to the role of Shelby’s husband, Caleb, round out the talented cast.
“The Spitfire Grill” is live on stage Feb. 8-25 at Ocala Civic Theatre, 4337 E. Silver Springs Blvd. For tickets, visit ocalacivictheatre.com or call (352) 236-2274.