Corrections or additions?

This review by Nicole Plett was prepared for the December 6, 2000

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

Review: `The Spitfire Grill’

Named for a World War II combat aircraft, The

Spitfire

Grill is the only place to eat in the tiny town of Gilead, Wisconsin.

And though the greasy spoon is the site of battles to be fought, the

town bears the name of the Old Testament refuge of King David, home

of Elijah, where the healing pine known as the balm of Gilead still

grows.

Collaborators James Valcq (music and book) and Fred Alley (lyrics

and book), currently presenting the world premiere of "The

Spitfire

Grill," based on Lee David Zlotoff’s film of the same name, have

chosen the promise of healing as the signature for their new musical.

Directed by the ever-adventuresome David Saint, and playing at George

Street Playhouse through December 23, the engaging show delivers

complex

characters, an intriguing plot, and tunes you can leave the theater

humming.

Percy (short for Perchance) Talbot, as she calls herself, opens the

show bravely with a mournful ballad that takes her from inside a jail

cell — her home for the past five years — on a nighttime

journey

to a dream-like destination. The battered young woman from Detroit

has fixed on Gilead for its promise of "the colors of

paradise"

that are illustrated in a tourist brochure that has come her way.

Here she hopes to start a new life. But as Sheriff Joe Sperling tells

Percy when he meets her bus, "Nothing much starts in Gilead these

days."

Valcq and Alley have moved their setting from rural Maine of the

movie,

to Wisconsin, their native state. Here we readily recognize the highs

and lows of contemporary rural life — spectacular scenic vistas

and limited life horizons.

In fact, in a terrific early scene in which the show’s entire cast

of six "pours" into the grill for breakfast, we are quickly

introduced to the undercurrents of anger, disappointment, and

frustration

that plague the residents of this small mining town where the quarry

closed years ago.

Hannah Ferguson, a good-hearted but life-hardened widow, has been

running the grill alone. She takes in Percy, an eager but totally

inexperienced cook. Her musical battle in the kitchen with "a

recipe for disaster" — coffeecake for 35 — is among

several

musical highlights. Caleb Goddard, Hannah’s nephew, and his unhappy

wife Shelby, are also visitors to the town diner. When Hannah falls

and cannot work, Percy is suddenly required to shoulder the work load,

and Shelby is brought in "to watch the till." Here the two

young women serendipitously hatch a scheme to help Hannah sell the

diner, with surprising results.

With plenty of colorful references to prison life, diner food, and

family secrets, the show’s plot moves smoothly and swiftly, flagging

somewhat in Act II when much of the story’s darker side must be aired.

Heading the capable cast are Garrett Long as the young

Percy, Beth Fowler as grill owner Hannah, and Janet Metz as the

unhappily

married Shelby. All have strong, honest voices that show off the

fresh,

interesting songs to great effect. Supporting them with verve and

color are Sean Arbuckle as Joe Sperling, a low-key sheriff in the

Maybery RFD tradition, Armand Schultz as the angry, underemployed

Caleb Goddard, and Susan Mansur as Effy, the town’s post mistress

and champion gossip. William Otto plays the mute Eli.

The score has a contemporary American folk sound, with keyboards,

accordion, guitar, mandolin, cello, and fiddle all used to expressive

effect. From the opening ballad, through funny ensemble numbers, a

lullabye, and heroic love songs, Valq and Alley allow their characters

to pour out their feelings in song. And the lyrical language is so

finely crafted that hardly a word of song or story escapes the

listener.

The colorful music palette includes traditional railroad ballad sounds

to the Native American rhythms and harmonies that creep into the

wonderful

"four seasons" interlude that marks the passing of Percy’s

first year in Gilead.

Michael Anania, scenic designer for Paper Mill Playhouse, designed

the show’s intricate, multi-level settings. Costumes are by Theoni

Aldredge, and lighting, an area where, it seems to me, the production

could benefit from a greater infusion of "the colors of

paradise,"

is by Howell Binkley. The adventuresome music ensemble was composed

of Andrew Wilder, conductor and keyboards; with Ed Cedar, Tom Aldrich,

David Gotay, and Yury Shubov. Because of its underlying mature themes,

the theater experience is recommended for ages 12 and up.

Although my memories of "The Spitfire Grill" movie have faded,

I still recall my distinct dissatisfaction with its ending. The

screenplay

followed that age-old and tired trope in which the female protagonist

is so "damaged" (Percy is both infertile and she has killed)

that she must be extinguished from the very face of the earth. Praise

to these authors who end their musical on a hopeful note, thus staking

a claim for the intrinsic worth of every human being, no matter what

wretched path their life may have taken.

— Nicole Plett

The Spitfire Grill, George Street Playhouse, 9

Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Continue through Saturday,

December

23. $24 to $40.


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