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Musical set in diner offers satisfying, well-done fare

Sometimes a show just feels right.

“The Spitfire Grill,” a touching musical set in a small Wisconsin diner, establishes a gentle mood from the beginning and then carries that mood all the way through to a deeply satisfying end.

This is a small musical, with no spectacle, no production numbers and no bombast. Yet for my money, one “Spitfire Grill” is worth a dozen Broadway mega-musicals.

That’s because it has genuine, believable characters – portrayed by a talented cast led by Manuela Peters – combined with evocative songs and a fine, multilayered plot.

Director Marianne McLaughlin staged it with a combination of intelligence and simplicity that I found irresistible.

The quiet, rural atmosphere was established even before the show began, with David Baker’s rustic set. This show takes place in the Civic’s small downstairs “black-box” stage, yet there was enough room for Baker to create a four-stool counter, two tables, a kitchen and even a stretch of deep, dark-green Wisconsin forest.

And then McLaughlin’s cast peopled this homey grill with living characters – complex, believable small-town people coping with real-life problems. Percy Talbott, the show’s key character, certainly has some issues. She has just been paroled from prison after five years, and she’s trying to start a new life in Gilead, a town she knows only from a scenic photo cut from a magazine.

Peters makes an absolutely first-rate Percy, giving her an intriguing combination of surliness and spunk. The pony-tailed Percy can shoot a death ray stare at anyone who crosses her – she learned how to be tough in the pen. Yet as she grows more at home in Gilead, she can raise her arms in triumph and leap like a kid.

Peters also has a pure, clear, evocative voice, well-suited to the sweet, emotional music by James Valcq and Fred Alley.

The equally effective Liberty Harris, as the mousy and husband-cowed Shelby Thorpe, joins Peters on a number of songs. Harris is a strong vocalist with excellent control, shown off to best effect in “Wild Bird,” which comments on Percy’s untamed nature. As fine as both were vocally, they were even better as actors. Their sisterly bond forms the show’s emotional core.

McLaughlin has also put together a solid ensemble of character performers – Brian Gunn as the admirable young sheriff, Sallie Christensen as the irrepressible gossip Effy and Aaron Waltman as the hard-minded Caleb. I especially loved Judi Pratt as the feisty and salty widow, Hannah Ferguson, who owns the Spitfire. Pratt gets one especially big laugh with a well-timed barnyard expletive.

“The Spitfire Grill’s” music is sometimes described as “country-folk” and there are a couple of songs that bring to mind, let’s say, Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Desperado.” Yet with music director Janet Robel’s particular instrumentation – piano, cello, guitar and mandolin – the score had a wonderful, moving quality which I might describe as chamber-folk. By any label, it had a rich, warm feel in both tone and melody.

And then there’s the story, which got under my skin in the best way. One plotline is about Percy and Shelby’s scheme to raffle off the diner through an essay contest. The deeper plotline is about mothers and their sons – and I can’t go into detail about that one. Just absorb it for yourselves, if you go.

And I do urge you to go.

“The Spitfire Grill” continues through April 11. Call (509) 325-2507 for tickets.