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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the November 29,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Lyrical `Spitfire Grill’

The movie "The Spitfire Grill," voted audience

favorite of the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, went on to commercial

and critical mainstream success. The story about a young woman who,

when released from prison, begins a new life working for the

proprietress

of a small town greasy spoon, impressed Wisconsin-native composer

James Valcq enough to want to set it to music.

Although his introduction was by way of a review in the New Yorker

magazine, it was months later that Valcq finally saw the film and

knew what he was going to do. Valcq lost little time in interesting

his fellow Wisconsin native and friend since high school, lyricist

Fred Alley, in collaborating on a book based on Lee David Zlotoff’s

screenplay.

It was easier that they could have ever dreamed to interest George

Street’s artistic director David Saint, who lost no time in contacting

them after hearing a demo of the score given to him by actor Penny

Fuller, performing at the time in George Street’s "Do I Hear A

Waltz."

Valcq remembers that Saint called him up within days and said, "I

get stuff all the time, but I can’t get your score out of my

head."

Following a three-day workshop at George Street, Saint put the show,

completed exactly one year ago by these two guys from Wisconsin, into

production.

The world premiere of the musical "The Spitfire Grill" takes

place at George Street on Wednesday, November 29, and performances

continue through December 23. This is a busy time for Saint, who is

not only giving "The Spitfire Grill" the attention it needs,

but was preparing "Down the Garden Paths" (which he directed

last season at George Street) for its Off-Broadway opening last week.

During a rehearsal break, Valcq and Alley talked about their history.

Alley, who is co-founder and artist in residence at the American

Folklore

Theater in Door County, Wisconsin, had only collaborated with Valcq

once before. This was at A.F.T., and the show was "The

Passage."

Valcq, whose credits include an adaptation of the classic children’s

book "The Pancake King," as well as the New York-produced

"Fallout Follies," "Songs I Never Sang for My Father,"

and "The New Leaf," is a pianist and standby conductor for

Broadway’s "Chicago."

Both collaborators admit that the film affected them so deeply that

they plunged spontaneously and enthusiastically into the project.

"It had all the elements of a great folk tale, with magical

qualities

and strong archetypal characters," says Alley. Having grown up

in a small town not unlike that in the film, he immediately related

to its characters. While the film is set in rural Maine, Valcq and

Alley moved the action to Wisconsin, a landscape with which they are

intimately familiar.

It was the "mystical qualities" of the film and the

"lyrical

possibilities in the language" that Alley says instantly appealed

to him. "It was exactly those qualities," says Valcq,

"that

me made me think of it as a musical. There is something beyond earthly

realism inherent in what happens to the characters."

"Right away I thought it would be a better musical than a movie.

You want to know what is in these characters’ hearts, which is of

course what a musical allows you to do: a character can address an

audience directly in a non-self-conscious manner," says Alley.

Valcq, who received considerable critical acclaim for "Zombies

from Beyond" when it opened Off-Broadway in 1995, chose an

indigenous

American folk sound for the score, using a guitar, cello, and fiddle.

"More than any other piece I have written," he says, "`The

Spitfire Grill’ comes closest to expressing my own voice."

While a chuckle or two is shared talking about Valcq’s

"Zombies,"

there is room for more levity with Alley opuses "Guys on Ice"

and "Lumberjacks in Love," both of which set box office

records

at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and are now moving to other

regional

theaters. They agree that this collaboration is more in the

traditional

musical theater genre. Both Valcq and Alley are adamant that, despite

the whimsical subject matter and campy-sounding titles of their

previous

shows, that "neither of us writes with a cynical edge." That

these two guys from Wisconsin also don’t want their work to appear

corny is a factor that has led them to go out of their way to avoid

fake or phony sentimentality in this adaptation. As Valcq assures

me, "All the joys and high spirits in `The Spitfire Grill’ are

earned by its characters undergoing pain and tragedy."

For those who remember the film: Hannah, who has been running the

grill alone, accepts the offer of the sheriff to employ Percy Talbot,

a female ex-convict in her early 20s who has just been released from

prison after serving a five-year term for manslaughter. Percy, who

is eager but not a very good cook, is grateful for help in the kitchen

from Shelby, a local woman, who comes to the rescue when Hannah, due

to an injury, can no longer work.

Conflicts arise when secrets are revealed, but trouble comes from

Nahum, Shelby’s bitter husband, and from a mystery man who lives in

the woods and lurks around the grill late at night to retrieve a bag

of groceries that is left for him by Hannah. Valcq tells me that with

Saint’s suggestion, the mysterious Eli, a character not explored to

the fullest extent in the film, has now become a more important

figure,

crucial to the emotional heart of the musical.

Alley is sure that Valcq’s music will get a lot of attention, because

"it doesn’t sound derivative." Although Valcq says the method

of telling the story is a throwback to Rodgers and Hammerstein

("my

favorite composing team") where the characters sing emotions that

they could not possibly speak, Alley chimes in quickly saying

"James’s

music is very sophisticated." "That’s right, Valcq answers,

"The music is not in that style at all."

"Even though we follow much of the screenplay closely, the

musical,

about love and reconciliation, happily takes on a character of its

own," says Valcq, admitting that they have taken some liberties

with the way the film ends. "There is a darkness to the film,

including the color pallette. In our musical there is a greater sense

of hope," which Valcq sees as an improvement for their purposes

over Zlotoff’s screenplay. Zlotoff had based his screenplay, in part,

on an article he read about homeless Vietnam veterans.

A resident of New York City for the past 12 years, Valcq got his

undergraduate

degree at Wisconsin and his graduate degree at New York University’s

musical theater program in 1991. Although Alley attended the

University

of Wisconsin, he found that his tenure at A.F.T., producing all

original

works for an audience of 55,000 a year, has been artistically

satisfying,

although this project was he says was "too tempting to

resist."

"We couldn’t hope for a better director, cast, or designers. It’s

the A-list," says Valcq. The show’s credits confirm this. Beth

Fowler is playing the role of grill owner Hannah. Fowler, who has

appeared at George Street in "Other People’s Money" and

"Greetings,"

won a Tony nomination for her performance as Mrs. Lovett in the

Broadway

revival of "Sweeney Todd." Garret Long is making her George

Street debut as the young Percy. Janet Metz, whose Broadway credits

include "Marie Christine," "On The Town," and

"Once

Upon a Mattress," plays Shelby. Metz is married to Michael Unger

who is directing the new production of "A Christmas Carol"

at the McCarter Theater. Other cast members include Sean Arbuckle

as Sheriff Joe, Armand Schultz as Caleb, Susan Mansur as Effy, and

William Otto as Eli. Tony Award-winner Theoni Aldredge, designed the

costumes; and Howell Binkley, currently represented on Broadway with

"The Full Monty," designed the lighting. What more could two

guys from Wisconsin ask for?

— Simon Saltzman

The Spitfire Grill, George Street Playhouse, 9

Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night for the family

musical (for ages 12 and up), that runs to December 23. $24 to $40.

Wednesday, November 29, 8 p.m.


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