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'Spitfire Grill' brings song and story to a Wisconsin town

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As Percy in “The Spitfire Grill,” the latest musical from Four Seasons Theatre, Eva Nimmer commands the stage with a clear, bright voice.

But it’s not all typical Broadway fare that she sings: Nimmer has to tell a story in vocal styles ranging from bluegrass to folk to even gospel.

“It’s really one of the most vocally demanding shows I’ve done,” Nimmer said in a phone interview last week, after completing a dress rehearsal of the show and heading into three weekend performances of “The Spitfire Grill.”

Last summer, “I performed eight shows a week — all musicals,” she said. “It set me up to have the stamina for this role.”

Nimmer, 27, and a UW-Madison graduate, is a familiar face at Door County’s Northern Sky Theater, where she’s performed for five summers. Northern Sky, formerly known as American Folklore Theatre, also is closely associated with the names of Fred Alley and James Valcq, who wrote “The Spitfire Grill.”

They based their musical on Lee David Zlotoff’s 1996 movie by the same name, moved the story from Maine to rural Wisconsin, and penned songs for it with deep American roots. The stage show went on to win a prestigious Richard Rodgers Award.

The story centers on Percy, a young woman with a dark past but a bright spirit — whose own energy and determination to reinvent herself spills over to the ailing town where she’s just arrived. The Spitfire Grill is the only restaurant in Gilead, a rural outpost struggling to survive since its main industry, a quarry, shut down.

The local references in “The Spitfire Grill” reinforce the play’s affection for small-town life, and the colorful characters who live it. Only a song about never-ending Wisconsin winters — where an on-stage snow shovel and a plastic jug of ice melt pellets help provide the percussion — comes a little too close to home.

Four Seasons Theatre, known for its big musical theater productions in Madison such as the recent “Man of La Mancha,” as well as its cabaret nights featuring local talent, chose to produce “The Spitfire Grill” in part for its regional connections, said Sarah Marty, Four Seasons’ producing artistic director. Musically rich, with a heartwarming message about friendship and home, the show works as a wintertime alternative to the usual holiday fare, she said.

Marty herself plays accordion in the ensemble on stage during the show, which also includes music director Thomas Kasdorf on piano, Amber Dolphin and Kay Black on violin, Beth Morgan on cello, and Chris Powers on guitar and mandolin. Jen Plants directed “The Spitfire Grill,” which also features Marja Barger as the grill’s owner Hannah, Mari Bass as Percy’s friend Shelby, Trevor Bass as Shelby’s husband Caleb, Jordan Peterson as the local sheriff, Brian Belz as the mysterious Visitor, and Sarah Streich as the town’s irresistible gossip.

Like “The Spitfire Grill” itself, Nimmer’s Wisconsin roots run deep. She grew up in Plymouth the third of five children, with parents she describes as “very practical people” who “worked really, really hard to provide all five of us with the best childhood they could by cutting coupons, hauling us to museums, and letting us run wild in the woods.”

“My mom’s a nurse. My dad’s an engineer,” she said. Nimmer enrolled at UW-Madison “because it’s a good science school” with a plan to study biology.

But while taking a couple of theater electives she found her true calling. Soon, Nimmer won the role of female lead Janet in a stage version of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and more roles followed.

Nimmer graduated in 2013 with a double major in theater and German. She sometimes works as a dialect coach, and used podcasts talking about the West Virginia coal industry to hone her own dialect as Percy, a West Virginia native.

Swapping a career in biology for one in the theater “was a hard thing to come to terms with. No one in my family has done this,” Nimmer said. But since graduation, she’s been working “pretty consistently.” She doesn’t have a home base, but a car “with a big trunk” filled with what she needs as she travels from city to city and role to role, she said.

Along with her work at Northern Sky Theater, Nimmer has performed with Madison’s Forward Theater, Children’s Theater of Madison and Theatre LILA. In February she’ll appear in “Equivocation” at Milwaukee’s Next Act Theater. And she’s co-written a musical, titled “Dairy Heirs,” about two Wisconsin siblings trying to decide what to do with their late father’s dairy farm, that will premiere next summer at Northern Sky Theater.

Nimmer started piano lessons when she was about 5 years old, but has had only a couple of singing lessons in her life, she said. Like Percy, who gets hired at the Spitfire Grill without knowing where life would lead her next, Nimmer got much of her training on the job — in her case, on the musical stage.

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