Bristol Riverside Theatre is opening its 22nd season with “The Spitfire Grill.” With music by James Valcq, lyrics by Fred Alley, and the book by both men, the musical was first produced at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick in November, 2000, and went quickly on to New York to open Playwrights Horizons’ 2000-’01 season. Loosely based on a 1996 movie, “Spitfire Grill” has become a staple of regional theaters of all kinds and has had hundreds of performances in a variety of Equity and non-Equity houses — close to 50 productions have apparently been scheduled for this season alone.
The plot centers on Percy Talbott (Erin Mosher), a young woman from West Virginia who has just been released from prison and is heading toward Gilead, a small town in rural Wisconsin she knows only from a picture she has seen and a description she has read in a travel book. She thinks of Gilead as a place where she might find peace and the chance to put her life back together. Gilead’s sheriff (Jason Dula) takes her to the town’s only restaurant and bar, the run- down Spitfire Grill, where he thinks she might find a room and work. The grill’s owner, Hannah Ferguson (Diane J. Findlay), has been trying for many years to sell the place, but she takes in Percy and puts her to work, horrified to discover how little Percy knows about cooking or other domestic tasks. But when Hannah falls and breaks her leg, she is amazed to find out how kind and helpful Percy can be.
Percy is also befriended by Shelby Thorpe (Kristin Maloney), the wife of Hannah’s unpleasant nephew, Caleb (Paul Woodson). Like everyone else in Gilead, Shelby is at first suspicious of Percy, but as Percy works hard to be helpful where needed and to fit in, Shelby, like most everyone else in Gilead, is won over. A little slower to come around is Effy Krayneck (Jo Twiss), who works by day as Gilead’s postmistress, but serves full time day and night as the town gossip and busybody.
When Percy suggests that Hannah might not only be able to find another owner for the grill but make a bit of money in the process by raffling it off, she sets off a firestorm of interest. Those who want to run the grill have to send in some money and write an essay saying why they want it or are best qualified to run it. The response is overwhelming — entries come in from all over the country — and Percy, with Shelby’s help, manages the large operation. The dark side of “Spitfire Grill,” which hovers from time to time in the background, erupts briefly and violently toward the end, but how the plot works out so that almost everybody ends up happy is better left unexplained.
The cast is accompanied by a very pleasant-sounding orchestra consisting of a guitar and mandolin player (Neil Nemetz), a cellist (Patricia Daniels), a violinist (Claudia Pellegrini), and an accordionist (either Katt Flagg or Eric Koper, depending on the performance). Musical director Mark Yurkanin, conducts and plays the synthesizer. Much to this critic’s pleaseure, the amplification was handled discreetly, and the singers were always clear and audible without the audience having to suffer through the coarse, distorted, and artificial sound so common in current musical productions.
The level of acting and singing was high, and the lyrics were almost always understandable. As Percy, Erin Mosher is on stage a great deal of the time, and her singing and acting are low key and effective. She is also extremely limber and spent a fair amount of her non-singing time at ease in positions that other actors would find impossible or at best awkward to use. Diane Findlay is splendid as Hannah and does a most convincing job of demonstrating how an older woman with a broken leg would move. Jason Dula’s portrayal of Sheriff Joe Sutter is sympathetic and effective, and he too convinces the audience of his worth by the effortless and clear way he sings. Jo Twiss seems to be having a good time with her role as the town busybody, and Paul Woodson certainly succeeds in making Caleb unpleasant. Robert Smythe (the only non-Equity actor in the group, who also happens to be an internationally renowned puppeteer) appears briefly, a mysterious character who, when his part in the action is explained, untangles for the audience the remaining knots in the plot.
The single set, designed by Mims Mattair, is splendid. It represents both Hannah’s house and the surrounding outdoors — the trees and lawn close to the house and the woods, significant to the plot, beyond. Inside the house are the kitchen and a sitting space, with a tall staircase leading up to a bed. The stairs are not used often, but their presence adds interest to the visual picture. The costumes were designed by Linda Bee Stockton, the lighting by Scott Pinkney.
There was no question about the opening-night audience’s enthusiasm. A large burst of spontaneous applause broke out after one of the women asserted the female right to independence. And when the final moment of Act II arrived, nearly the entire audience rose for a standing ovation.
“The Spitfire Grill,” through Sunday, October 12, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Musical based on the 1996 film. $34 to $42. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.