Out & About: ‘Spitfire Grill’ tops broad spectrum of musical fare

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A broad and substantial portion of the musical spectrum radiates across southern Maine over the next week.

In Portland, “The Spitfire Grill” is an exemplar of dark, minor-key musical theater, a genre of stagecraft that typically deals with the bright and shiny facets of life. Good Theater, the resident troupe at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, offers a fine production that runs through Feb. 14.

The University of Southern Maine School of Music has a new member of its jazz faculty: Pianist/composer/singer Mark Shilansky will be leading a concert of reinterpretations of popular jazz tunes this Friday on the Gorham campus, part of the school’s Showcase Series.

Jonathan Edwards, the perennial “Sunshine” singer/songwriter, will also appear this Friday at One Longfellow Square in Portland.

The Soweto Gospel Choir, a two-time Grammy Award winning ensemble from South Africa, visits Merrill Auditorium on Feb. 4, a presentation of Portland Ovations.

‘The Spitfire Grill’

A trio of carefully crafted women characters and a compelling plot are the defining features of “The Spitfire Grill,” the current offering by Good Theater, the resident thespian troupe at Portland’s St. Lawrence Arts Center.

Plus it’s a musical, which makes “The Spitfire Grill” all the more intriguing. After all, musical theater is a genre that’s frequently associated with big casts, brassy scores, cardboard characters and insubstantial themes.

How does “The Spitfire Grill” fit this stereotypical mold? Not at all. There are only seven characters, the score evokes an emotional minor key and the characters are real people who face real challenges. “The Spitfire Grill,” directed by Brian P. Allen, opened last weekend and I was mesmerized.

Fred Alley wrote the book and collaborated on the lyrics. James Valcq composed the music and also collaborated on the lyrics.

Two women face demons from their pasts. Percy (Kelly Caufield) has just been released from a five-year prison sentence and tries to restart her life in Gilead, a tiny Wisconsin town that’s economically and socially distressed by the closure of its one industry. Percy goes to work for Hannah (Claudia Schneider) at the Spitfire Grill, the only eatery in town and the center of its social life.

Percy and Hannah are joined by a woman with problems of her own. Shelby (Kate Davis) fights to escape the dominance of husband Caleb (Timothy Bate) and to tap into her own inner strengths. Other characters include the town gossip (Amy Roche), the local county sheriff (Todd Daley) and a mysterious man who skulks about in darkness (Guy Durichek).

Central to the plot is Hannah’s longing to sell the Spitfire. But in Gilead’s distressed circumstances, that’s impossible. When Percy suggests unloading the grill via an essay contest, the show rolls toward an unexpected but emotionally satisfying denouement.

Good Theater presents “The Spitfire Grill” through Feb. 14 at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. (top of Munjoy Hill). Call Good Theater at 885-5883.

Reinterpretations of Jazz

There’s a new member of the jazz faculty at the University of Southern Maine School of Music, and he and his ensemble are featured this Friday on the Gorham campus in a public concert that emphasizes reinterpretations of familiar tunes.

Jazz pianist/composer/singer Mark Shilansky grew up in northern New England and spent considerable time immersed in Manhattan’s music scene. He has taught at Boston’s Berklee School of Music and currently works as sideman with several prominent jazz artists, plus he fronts his own eponymous quintet.

Playing his own brand of jazz, rooted in tradition but incorporating influences from Latin and popular music, the Mark Shilansky Quintet will perform quirky but infectious original compositions and Latin-jazzy takes on such warhorses as “Misty,” “Take 5” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” in a melange that has been described as “21st Century space-age bachelor pad music.”

The idea of this Spotlight Series concert is to introduce the school’s newest faculty member to the general public.

“I want to present a sampling of most everything I do,” says Shilansky. “The way I see the world is filled with irony, contrast, and tension, as well as with humor and happiness – so I try to have my music contain both of those extremes. I tell people that I wanted to be Billy Joel all through high school; and Herbie Hancock all through college. Now I want to be both.”

Catch this concert at Corthell Hall on the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus at 8 p.m. Jan. 29. Call the music box office at 780-5555.

Jonathan Edwards

It’s probably unfair to label Jonathan Edwards as a “one-hit wonder.” Over his long career as a singer/songwriter, he has covered a lot of ground in multiple genres, ranging from blues and country to live theater and children’s tunes. And many other musicians have covered his songs. Plus he’s worked several movies and numerous television gigs.

But to the general public, Edwards is almost exclusively remembered for one song: “Sunshine,” a breezy tune with an infectious melody and a bright, optimistic lyric that topped the pop charts in 1971. The song brought him instant fame and remains the mainstay of his career. It’s still a staple of oldies radio.

Edwards was born in Minnesota and spent some years on the Boston music scene. His career detoured into blues and rock before realizing he was hooked on folk music. During his long career he has recorded 15 albums, performed throughout North America and Europe, and collaborated with artists such as Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Buffett, Maura O’Connell, Christine Lavin and Cheryl Wheeler.

Edwards visits One Longfellow Square in Portland (corner of Congress and State) this Friday for an 8 p.m. concert. Call 761-1757.

Soweto Gospel Choir

For an ensemble that’s only 8 years old, the Soweto Gospel Choir has made an incredible international impact. The 30-plus-voice choir hails from South Africa and has won two Grammy Awards. The first was for the album “Blessed,” in 2007, and the second was for “African Spirit,” in 2008.

Other honors include a pair of bests from two American gospel music associations and several international awards.

Aural and visual signatures include earthy rhythms, rich harmonies, energetic dancing and brilliantly colorful costumes. They perform in six of South Africa’s 11 official languages, and are now spreading their musical wealth over the globe via international tours.

The Soweto Gospel Choir’s current tour brings them to Merrill Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Feb. 4, part of the 2009-2010 season of Portland Ovations. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Sidebar Elements

Three strong women, each battling her own personal demons, find strength by banding together in “The Spitfire Grill,” Good Theater