Review: The Spitfire Grill (Refuge Theatre Project)

| April 6, 2018

Lauren Paris stars in The Spitfire Grill, Refuge Theatre Project            


The Spitfire Grill

Written by James Valcq and Fred Alley
Windy City Café, 1062 W. Chicago (map)
thru May 5  |  tix: $30  |  more info    
Check for half-price tickets    


Small but lovely site-specific musical is a must-see


Lauren Paris, Alex Christ and Gerald Richardson star in Spitfire Grill, Refuge Theatre

Refuge Theatre Project presents
The Spitfire Grill

Review by Lauren Whalen

The 1996 film “The Spitfire Grill was a quiet, female-driven tale of forgiveness and redemption, set in the tiny, fictional town of Gilead, Wisconsin and starring Ellen Burstyn and Marcia Gay Harden. Its musical adaptation premiered off-Broadway just weeks after the September 11 terror attacks, and received acclaim from even the hardest-nosed of critics. Refuge Theatre Project’s production isn’t Chicago’s first – BoHo produced the musical in 2012 – but it is Chicago’s first site-specific Spitfire. Performed at the Windy City Café in West Town, this Spitfire is meticulously staged by director Christopher Nicole Michelle Haskins stars in The Spitfire Grill, Refuge Theatre ProjectPazdernik and features gorgeous acoustic musical direction courtesy of Jon Schneidman, who plays piano, guitar and harmonica (sometimes two at once). Though the cast features one weak link, Refuge’s The Spitfire Grill is intimate and beautiful, a sweet but not cloying reminder of human connection’s everlasting power.

The Spitfire Grill opens with Percy (Lauren Paris), arriving in Gilead immediately after her prison release. Still on parole, she’s chosen Gilead from a picture in a travel magazine, but has no job, plan or family. Thanks to sheriff Joe (Alex Christ), Percy lands a waitressing job at the Spitfire Grill, the only restaurant in town. Its owner Hannah (Katherine Condit) has a bad hip and a chip on her shoulder, desperate to sell the place since her soldier son Eli went MIA overseas. When Hannah is injured, her shy niece-in-law Shelby (Emily Goldberg) steps in to help and quickly bonds with Percy, creating a raffle and essay contest with the Spitfire Grill as the grand prize. Only Shelby’s controlling husband and Hannah’s nephew Caleb (Gerald Richardson) opposes this plan, and sets out to discover who Percy really is.

Refuge Theatre Project is known for its site-specific productions: High Fidelity was staged and remounted at a pop-up record shop; Bare in a church sanctuary and Lysistrata Jones in a gym. I reviewed both High Fidelity and Lysistrata Jones, and I can say that The Spitfire Grill is the most successful on-site Refuge production I’ve seen thus far. Director Pazdernik stages the musical across three booths at the Windy City Café, with the audience in chairs and more booths. Music director Schneidman’s piano is to the side. What could have been intrusive and overly loud is instead up close, personal and heartwarming. The performers aren’t miked, and are completely aware of the space they inhabit, never overpowering the audience with loud vocals. Collin Helou’s lighting design is genius, making the very most of a limited palette and creating believable spaces and transitions. Everything about the staging is natural and organic, emphasizing Spitfire’s down to earth and tragically human story.

Nicole Michelle Haskins, Emily Goldberg and Alex Christ star in Spitfire Grill, Refuge TheatreAlex Christ stars in The Spitfire Grill, Refuge Theatre Project Katherine Condit stars in The Spitfire Grill, Refuge Theatre Project, Windy City CafeAlex Christ and Nicole Michelle Haskins star in The Spitfire Grill, Refuge Theatre Project Lauren Paris stars in The Spitfire Grill at Refuge Theatre Project, Windy City CafeLauren Paris and Katherine Condit star in The Spitfire Grill, Refuge Theatre Project

Spitfire’s cast is stellar, navigating a complex, challenging score with grace and pride. Jeff nominee Nicole Michelle Haskins shines as town gossip and postmistress Effy, always entertaining and never shrill. Recent Northwestern graduate Christ shows enormous potential: his Joe is tough but caring, gentle with Percy and Hannah as they face the demons in their respective pasts. Spitfire’s three main characters couldn’t be more perfect: Condit, so impressive in last fall’s The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier, is a flawless Hannah, tough but vulnerable. Goldberg, always strong yet sweet, has the ideal angelic vocals for Shelby. And Paris is a rising star, embodying the rough, guarded Percy with phenomenal vocals and scrappy style. Only Richardson’s Caleb is flat and unconvincing, but with such a gifted ensemble, it almost doesn’t matter. Refuge’s The Spitfire Grill is a must-see, a small but powerful musical with a lovely score and a deep understanding of the meaning of home.

Rating: ★★★½

The Spitfire Grill continues through May 5th at Windy City Cafe, 1062 W. Chicago (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 7pm.  Tickets are $30 (with limited seating), and are available online through (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information at time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)


Katherine Condit, Lauren Paris and Emily Goldberg star in Spitfire Grill, Refuge Theatre

Photos by Zeke Dolezalek




Lauren Paris (Percy), Katherine Condit (Hannah), Emily Goldberg (Shelby), Alex Christ (Joe), Gerald Richardson (Caleb), Nicole Michelle Haskins (Effy), Matt Patrick (Stranger, Male Understudy), Catherine McNamara (Female Understudy)

behind the scenes

Christopher Pazdernik (director), Jon Schneidman (music director), Shelby Burgus (stage manager), Gina Francesca (costume design), Collin Helou (lighting design), Evan Frank, Ross Egan (prop co-design), Mark J. Bracken Jr. (technical director), Denzel Tsponang (assistant director), Leslie Halverson (assistant stage manager), Zeke Dolezalek (photos)

Alex Christ and Lauren Paris star in The Spitfire Grill, Refuge Theatre ProjectLauren Paris stars in The Spitfire Grill at Refuge Theatre Project, Windy City CafeLauren Paris and Emily Goldberg star in The Spitfire Grill, Refuge Theatre Project


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Category: 2018 Reviews, Lauren Emily Whalen, Musical, Refuge Theatre Project

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