LETTERS TO EDITOR
BOOKS and CDs
The Spitfire Grill
These sad associations notwithstanding, The Spitfire Grill is an upbeat, well-crafted and performed show, with an enjoyable folksy score that works hand-in-hand with its story of hope and redemption. Its heroine, Percy Talbott, having just served a 5-year prison term, arrives in the town that became the focus of her prison dreams after she saw an idyllic picture in a travel magazine. Gilead turns out to be an economically depressed dead-end but Percy's arrival leads to major changes in the lives and attitudes of everyone she becomes involved with: Hannah, the crusty old owner of The Spitfire Grill who reluctantly employs Percy; Hannah's nephew Caleb and his meek wife Shelby; Effy, the post mistress and town rumor monger; Joe the sheriff and Percy's parole officer; a not so mysterious visitor to Hannah's backyard. Of course, Percy herself is not immune to redemptive change.
James Valcq and Fred Alley have tweaked the script of the nonmusical 1996 film of the same name, toning down its more manipulative and melodramatic elements and ending things on a happy note. The result, while not a textbook in plot originality, is affecting musical story telling with lyrics and spoken dialogue so seamlessly integrated that shortcomings don't seem to matter. All the characters, even the nominal villain, are likeable, simple folks, and the actors portraying them act and sing with verve and depth.
Not a big brassy blockbuster like The Producers (our review), or a sassy satire like the other post-September 11th musical, Urinetown (our review), Spitfire is a slice of Americana, a modern folk tale. The modestly -sized screen-to-stage adaptation began life last fall at the George Street Playhouse, with David Saint, the artistic director at the helm. Saint again directs and has brought along Garrett Long, who created the leading role of Percy Talbott in New Jersey. She has a refreshingly plain Jane rustic charm and a twangy voice that's all one could wish for. Her eloquent rendition of "Shine" towards the end of the second act is a deserved showstopper.
Long's has a marvelous co-star in Liz Callaway as timid Shelby who, when Hannah is immobilized by her bad leg, works side by side with Percy and discovers that she has a backbone as well as shirt ironing and kitchen skills. The two women have individual star power and make a winning team, especially in their shimmering duet, "The Colors of Paradise. "
Steven Pasquale, an appealing leading man adds to the musical pleasure of the ensemble pieces, as well as a duet with Percy and a solo ballad, " Forest for the Trees". The big-voiced Armand Schultz manages to tap into the pain that prompts Caleb's suspicions and need for a subservient wife. Phyllis Sommerville and Mary Gordon Murray elevate their characters above the obvious stereotypes -- Sommerville as the tough, seemingly unaffectionate Spitfire Grill proprietor who turns into an old softie, and Murray as gossipy Effy whose sharp tongue hides a heart of gold. Stephen Sinclair doesn't get even a single song to make up for his being stuck in the thanklesss role of a mysterious visitor whose identity most people will guess the minute he appears.
This not a dancing musical but there's a choreographic quality to its action attributable to Luis Perez, also with the show since its New Jersey premiere. James Valcq's orchestration of his own score enhances the country flavor. The musicians, neatly tucked out of sight on a platform at the side of the stage, never overwhelm the lyrics which have a conversational tone that contributes to the easy talk-sing-talk transitions and evoke the atmosphere of a small town in rural Wisconsin. Of the fifteen songs several of the peppiest feature the full company, my own favorite being "Something's Cooking At the Spitfire Grill." While not a single number is reprised, the songs themselves often contain their own reprisals and at times have an overall feeling of sameness.
Michael Anania's versatile all wooden set is all of a piece but enables the movement from inside the Spitfire Grill, to a back porch facing a forest, to another unspecified outdoors area at the top of an open circular staircase. This abets Mr. Saint's savvy direction in picturing the passing of the seasons, best illustrated when Caleb, Joe and Effy shift from doing Winter to Spring neighborly chores for Hannah as they sing "Ice and Snow". A stagecraft master's touch evident here and throughout is Howell Binkley's exquisite lighting.
This unabashedly sentimental musical has enough going for it to warrant a longer than scheduled run. Ideally it would stay a while at the small, comfortable Duke Theater with its perfect sightline stadium seating -- on the same street as some big, splashy Broadway shows but with an Off-Broadway status. Whatever its future in New York, The Spitfire Grill's cast and staging requirements, could easily make it a regional favorite. To paraphrase one of the songs, " Say what you want, play it where you will, someone should keep singing the songs from the Spitfire Grill."