When it comes to live theatre in Vancouver, much of the spotlight goes to heavy hitters like the Arts Club and Bard on the Beach (and, until recently, Vancouver Playhouse). But drama buffs know that there’s an entire network of smaller, intimate theatres operating largerly under the radar – from the Cultch to the Firehall Arts Centre and tiny Pacific Theatre in the Granville Rise neighbourhood. While productions may be more modest at these theatres, production value is anything but.
I stopped by Pacific Theatre for the first time this week to take in their latest musical, the small-town drama Spitfire Grill (running through Oct. 27). The theatre can be a little hard to find, tucked away next to a seniors centre on 12th Avenue. Pacific Theatre bills itself as “community-minded professional theatre,” and the venue has a grassroots, community feel. Everyone inside seemed to know each other – staff, performers and patrons. Inside, a small lobby leads to a very unique 126-seat, alley-style theatre. The north and south wings are completely separated by a ground-level stage in the middle.
The Spitfire Grill, adapted from the hit 1996 film, traces the life of an ex-prisoner who relocates to a small midwestern town in the hope of starting a new life. She gets a job at the grill – the town’s only restaurant – and quickly discovers that everything is not as perfect as it seems. Everyone seems stuck in a rut – from bad jobs to bad relationships – and eager to move out.
True to Pacific Theatre’s DIY spirit, the actors in the production doubled as the orchestra – not just singing but whipping out violins, accordians, guitars and clarinets at key moments. In fact, it’s the dexterity and enthusiasm of the cast that really steals the show. The book – or storyline – itself feels dated and isn’t terribly compelling, with some tired plot twists involving a long-lost son and secret childhood traumas. Likewise, the music and lyrics seem too light for the weighty subject matter tackled in the production.
But the energy and passion of the performers, making do with a makeshift set and tiny stage, easily compensates. Julie McIsaac playing the lead role of Percy, for instance, alternates between singing, dancing, playing the violin and strumming the guitar. This gets to the heart of what makes Vancouver’s smaller theatres special. They’re a reminder that the city is filled with extraordinary dramatic talent – consummate professionals who act, sing and dance in a dwindling number of venues not for acclaim or fortune but for love of their craft.
And the Spitfire Grill does certainly have its moments. Sarah May Redmond as Effy – the accordian-playing, nosey postmistress - lights up the production every time she wanders onto the set. Damon Calderwood’s Caleb – a laid-off quarry worker – sings a moving dirge about a long-lost blue collar way of life, where men worked hard and were paid well.
And McIsaac does her best to inject some vitality into our ex-prisoner Percy, who ultimately teaches everyone to see the joys of small-town living and the humble Spitfire Grill. In fact, when McIsaac finished the musical’s climactic number on the night I attended, a tear was streaming down her cheek. In a bigger theatre, that detail – and perhaps that emotion – would have been lost.
Anyone else a fan of Pacific Theatre? What makes Vancouver’s smaller theatres special? Let us know below.