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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
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
Collaborators James Valcq (music and book) and Fred Alley (lyrics
and book), currently presenting the world premiere of "The
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
characters, an intriguing plot, and tunes you can leave the theater
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
to a dream-like destination. The battered young woman from Detroit
has fixed on Gilead for its promise of "the colors of
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
Valcq and Alley have moved their setting from rural Maine of the
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
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
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
married Shelby. All have strong, honest voices that show off the
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
The colorful music palette includes traditional railroad ballad sounds
to the Native American rhythms and harmonies that creep into the
"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
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
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
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Continue through Saturday,
23. $24 to $40.
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