Maudlin sentimentality is acceptable when toasting your 90-year-old grandmother on finishing her first 3K. That's because it’s quite an accomplishment and we should happily allow the tears to flow. But such effusive emotionalism is less tolerable in a musical about a convicted murderer who killed her abusive husband in his sleep (defensible as that choice might have been).
Yet that is the journey we are asked to take in The Spitfire Grill, now at the Beck Center for the Arts. Listen, musicals involving homicide are fine, whether you prefer the grisly in-person violence of Sweeney Todd or the campy botanical carnage in Little Shop of Horrors. But when you lean on the emotions as hard as James Valcq (music and book) and Fred Alley (lyrics and book) do in Spitfire, in an effort to make nearly every song an anthem to personal growth and tearful redemption, you need to get a clue.
Percy is a young woman just released from prison for murdering her man, and she winds up in the backwater town of Gilead, Wisconsin. Soon, thanks to the intervention of kindly cop Joe (a quite affable Shane Patrick O’Neill), she’s working at the only restaurant in town, owned by a predictably ornery old coot named Hannah.
This is all based on the tearjerker flick of the same name, but the play doubles down on the melodrama by adding music to the story. But not just any music. These songs are mostly repetitive A-B-C-B rhyme schemes tacked onto Sesame Street-simple tunes, making one yearn for even a moment of Sondheim-like complexity. One after another, the songs beat you up with their intense desire to wrench moisture from your eyes. Indeed, earnest sincerity drizzles off this show like bacon grease off a slow-cooked, pan-fried pork fritter on Hannah’s menu.
From “A Ring Around the Moon” to “The Colors of Paradise,” and from “Come Alive Again” to “Shine,” the incessant and weepy musical pummeling doesn’t stop. Along the way, Percy’s journey from con to cook to a better life is sprinkled with unlikely events, such as a contest where people send in $100 and an essay about why they want to own the Spitfire Grill. The winner gets the joint, you see, since Hannah is ready to move on after she injured herself in a fall.
Of course, there is a gruff grill regular, Caleb, who is bummed by the quarry closing, his dishrag of a wife Shelby, who becomes Percy’s best friend, and the town’s post office mistress and pathological gossip Effy. Also, lurking in the woods is Hannah's son (Derrick Winger), who has his own troubled past. Does it all end happily for everyone? You'll never guess (and I'll never tell...shh!)
As Caleb, the excellent performer Dan Folino fails to find the second ply in his cardboard character, and shows off his powerful pipes almost to a fault. Kate Leigh Michalski as Shelby looks suitably morose during her well-sung solo “When Hope Goes,” and Lissy Gulick's Effy is adorably nosy.
In the lead roles, Neely Gevaart sings beautifully as Percy and snarls effectively a couple times. And Lenne Snively as Hannah provides a few dashes of much-appreciated sarcasm amidst the lollipops and moonbeams. Indeed, the actors do their jobs well under the direction of William Roudebush. But the whole thing is so drenched in sugary syrup that they should have hot showers in the lobby for audience members who need to rinse off the treacle.
The Spitfire Grill
Through October 18 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.