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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
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
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
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
Following a three-day workshop at George Street, Saint put the show,
completed exactly one year ago by these two guys from Wisconsin, into
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
Theater in Door County, Wisconsin, had only collaborated with Valcq
once before. This was at A.F.T., and the show was "The
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
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
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
It was the "mystical qualities" of the film and the
possibilities in the language" that Alley says instantly appealed
to him. "It was exactly those qualities," says Valcq,
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
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
there is room for more levity with Alley opuses "Guys on Ice"
and "Lumberjacks in Love," both of which set box office
at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and are now moving to other
theaters. They agree that this collaboration is more in the
musical theater genre. Both Valcq and Alley are adamant that, despite
the whimsical subject matter and campy-sounding titles of their
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
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
favorite composing team") where the characters sing emotions that
they could not possibly speak, Alley chimes in quickly saying
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
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
degree at Wisconsin and his graduate degree at New York University’s
musical theater program in 1991. Although Alley attended the
of Wisconsin, he found that his tenure at A.F.T., producing all
works for an audience of 55,000 a year, has been artistically
although this project was he says was "too tempting to
"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
won a Tony nomination for her performance as Mrs. Lovett in the
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
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
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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