WBU theatre to present musical production about redemption

PLAINVIEW – Only a secure director would schedule a theatre production for the upcoming season without seeing the script first. That’s how confident Dr. Marti Runnels was that the musical version of Spitfire Grill would be as good as the movie.

Runnels, director of theatre at Wayland Baptist University and a self-proclaimed movie junkie, said he was so taken by the 1996 movie The Spitfire Grill that when he learned a musical production existed, he was immediately interested.

“I ordered the music to find out how it was. I knew if the music was any good that the production would be great because the movie was so good,” he said. “I decided to do it without even reading the script first.”

The script, of course, lived up to his expectations, and with a new fine arts professor skilled in musical theatre lined up to help, Runnels had high hopes for the production. He hasn’t been let down. The show opens Feb. 22 and runs for two weekends.

“It’s a great story of redemption for several different people in the play,” he said. “There are three main female characters who all deal with their demons and their past and come out better people in the end.”

The show is set in the rural Wisconsin town of Gilead, where a woman named Hannah runs the Spitfire Grill. The years of living have worn on Hannah, who has become a tired and bitter lady. Percy, an ex-con, arrives in Gilead fresh out of prison and gets a job at the grill.

“The people aren’t as inviting as the scenery in the magazine,” Runnels said. “They’re pretty cruel to her because of her past. But eventually, she deals with her issues as well and they come to accept her.”

Runnels said having help from Jeff Kensmoe, assistant professor of vocal studies and director of the opera/musical theatre program at WBU, made the rehearsal process much more efficient and enjoyable.

“When you have someone doing the music and vocals and instrumentals, I can focus on the other things, the acting and blocking,” Runnels said, adding that Kensmoe’s wife, Natalie Collins, has also been a valuable resource for choreography. “Three heads are better than one, no question.”

The cast for this production includes both theatre veterans and newbies, most of whom are music students. Rachel Morgan, a Plainview freshman who has been in theatre productions since high school, plays Percy, and Rebecca Ballinger, a sophomore music major from Lubbock, plays Hannah. Shelby, another woman from the town, is played by Alicia Alford, a senior music major from Forney, and her husband, Caleb, is played by recent WBU graduate Jeremy Walker of Crosbyton. Chris Smith, a sophomore from Lubbock who had roles in both the fall productions, plays the sheriff, Joe. Effy, the town gossip, is played by theatre veteran Hannah Stewart of Lubbock, and senior theatre veteran Tim Fisher of San Antonio plays The Visitor.

Other cast members playing townspeople include Sarah Bolyard, Stephanie Ciszek, Conner Davis, Khrystyne Eckerd, Jessie Else, Thomas Hoffman and Rachel Morrison.

Instrumentalists for the production include Robert Black, accordion; Sarah Herrington, keyboard; Jennifer Morgan, violin; Cory Jones, guitar and mandolin; and Adolph Salinas, cello. Kensmoe is directing the musical side of the production.

The play will be held at 8 p.m. on Feb. 22, 23 and 24, and March 2, 3 and 5, with the house opening at 7:30 p.m. That final night is a performance in conjunction with the Christian University Theatre Festival hosted by WBU. Howard Payne University and Hardin-Simmons University will be performing on March 6, with those shows set at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., respectively.

The show is written by James Valcq and Fred Alley and based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff. The musical premiered in November 2000 and has received high praise from critics. The New York Times said, “The songs are shiny with tunefulness, hope and all-American inflections of country and folk,” and The Star Ledger called it “an upbeat little musical with a great big heart.”

Tickets for Spitfire Grill are $8 per person or $4 for Wayland alumni. The production serves as the homecoming presentation on the opening weekend. For reservations, call the box office at 291-1089.