Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Everybody Deserves a Second Chance!
If after the events of the last two years you need any reason at all to embrace life again, the musical you've been waiting for has arrived. “The Spitfire Grill,” one of the most heartfelt musicals of recent years, transports you immediately into an obscure patch of the American heartland full of homespun charms as warm as a winter blanket. The longing for your own version of Shangri La, an escape from the masses so to speak, to a place like Gilead, well removed from the big, troublesome world, is real enough—perhaps now more than ever.
And the show's creators tap into that longing with unembarrassed honesty. Sophisticates will find themselves powerless to resist this quirky slice of small-town Americana with its folksy bluegrass score, its instantly infectious melodies and its resonant, unpretentious orchestrations. You just want to clear your mind and listen to those fetching tunes over and over again.
Nobody is perfect, and everyone deserves a second chance. These threads are woven into all the stories told in “The Spitfire Grill,” and echoed in the history of the musical itself, which breathes new life into a tale first told in a little-known independent film released over twenty-five years ago.
And now, for the first time since 2002, when it broke box office records, this spirited musical that blends poignance with secrets, hope, fear, laughter and song is once again presented on our own Laguna Playhouse stage in Laguna Beach through February 13th—adorably beguiling in every way. Directed by Steve Steiner (Brdwy: “Buddy Holly: The Buddy Holly Story”) and musically directed by Glen Rovinelli (“1001 Nights”), it’s a gorgeous story about healing the wounds of the past and finding your chosen family, with characters and music that harmonizes as a heartwarming prelude to the arrival of Spring. A must-see production that absolutely "Shines."
Authors James Valcq and Fred Alley, who have been friends since high-school music camp in 1980, had been collaborating in 1994 on “The Passage” for Alley's American Folklore Theatre in Wisconsin. A year later, New York-based Valcq was seeking a follow-up project for the pair after his “Zombies from the Beyond” had just closed off-Broadway. They wanted to create a piece of populist theatre with elements of myth and folktale. Upon seeing the film, “The Spitfire Grill,” with Oscar-winning actors Ellen Burstyn and Marcia Gay Harden, they knew they had found their vehicle, and commenced writing the score in October 1999.
The musical received its world premiere workshop production at the George Street Playhouse in the fall of 2000, then was presented off-Broadway on October 2, 2001, only three weeks after 9/11 had devastated the nation. At the time, critics lauded its message of renewal and rebirth; in the current environment, it feels equally necessary today.
Picture rural Wisconsin. February. A pretty young woman who looks as though she's had some rough edges in her life named Percy Talbott (Julia Hoffman; Ntl. Tour: “Once”) gazes out the window of her prison cell from which she is about to be released. Her face declares the strength of her youth, yet there’s an inner sadness beyond her years. She carries a terrible secret. In her pocket is a photograph clipped from a travel book with a caption that states “Autumn Colors along Copper Creek” pinpointing the tiny little Wisconsin town of Gilead ("A Ring Around the Moon"), so far north that the locals call other Americans “flatlanders.”
Arriving in Gilead, Percy lawfully reports to the local sheriff, Joe Sutter (Noah Berry; Ntl. Tour- “Buddy Holly: The Buddy Holly Story”). He leads her through the deserted streets to a ramshackle diner called the Spitfire Grill, the only place to eat in town, run by the flinty old widow, Hannah Ferguson (eight-time Carbonell Award Nominee Missy McArdle), who has a bad hip and a short, no-nonsense manner bordering on bitter. There’s an unseen side to her, however: she can also be very tender-hearted and fiercely loyal. After some convincing, Joe persuades Hannah to take Percy on board as a live-in waitress. She bunks in the upstairs hideaway room, which actually looks not much different than her former jail cell—but at least she can open the window.
Effy Krayneck (Sarah Godwin; Ntl. Tour- “Buddy Holly: The Buddy Holly Story”), the town postmistress and busybody, is immediately suspicious of Percy, as is Caleb Thorpe (Alex Canty; Ntl. Tour: “Million Dollar Quartet”), Hannah’s nephew. They make it known that a jailbird isn’t welcome in their midst and circulate a swirl of rumors and accusations throughout the little community ("Something’s Cookin’ at the Spitfire Grill"). In the face of all the gossip and Hannah's constant haranguing, Percy begins to wonder whether she made a mistake in coming to Gilead after all.
It is the painfully shy and badgered Shelby (Anneliese Moon; West End: “Once”), Caleb’s wife, who is the only one willing to suspend judgment. As they become closer friends, Shelby tells Percy that Hannah had a son, Eli (Grant Alexander Brown; Amsterdam: “The Last Five Years”) the town’s favorite, and an idol to Caleb. But Eli was long ago reported missing-in-action in Vietnam. For some reason, however, Hannah has the unexplained ritual of leaving a loaf of bread every night on the stump behind the grill, which, just as mysteriously, is gone the next morning. As “The Visitor” who never speaks, Mr. Brown is powerful and mysterious, with strong eyes and a rooted sense of honor.
Winter seems to be melting into spring. And, the three women discover a depth of relationship that none feel they deserve, while never admitting that vulnerability to each other. Second chances.
But Gilead, as it turns out, is practically a ghost town, and the only restaurant around is dying along with it. Though everyone in town eventually comes there, Hannah has been trying unsuccessfully to unload the place for ten years. So Percy comes up with the notion that Hannah should “Shoot the Moon” by holding a lottery of sorts: send in a $100 entry fee and an essay saying why you want the Grill and it might be yours. Soon letters are overwhelming the tiny town’s post office, much to the chagrin of Effy, and the contest is on.
At last, the day arrives when a decision must be made. Hannah decides the winner is the ad that was written for the newspapers, the one written by “her girls.” Percy and Shelby are to get the grill, and all the money is returned to the contestants. By that time, Percy has not only found self-forgiveness and happiness, but has proven to be the healing “balm” in Gilead in the narrative’s theme of redemption. Even Joe, once so eager to leave, decides to stay.
Interestingly enough, the line between theatergoer and actor almost disappears as the audience is made to feel at home and a part of the story. The colors, lights and shadows are masterfully created by lighting designer Clifford Spulock, conveying the earthiness of small-town country life. Coupled with Chris Strangfeld’s realistic set, and Ian Wehrle’s amazing sounds, Director Steiner takes us on a marvelous journey.
Each and every song is shiny with tunefulness, hope, and all-American inflections of country and folk. From the first note, Mr. Valcq’s score is simply astonishing, feeling like an extra character, brimming with creative cello, violin, mandolin, guitar, and keyboard solos. As the stories unfold on stage, many of the main leads take up instruments and join in at times with gentle vernacular charm, very much like a breath of fresh country air. In tandem, Mr. Alley’s lyrics have a matching ease and simplicity, with a ring of plain-spoken truth. Indeed, this is a show that succeeds by not trying: it simply is.
The cast is exceptional. Each actor fully inhabits his character - their powerful voices full of pain, eventual healing and blissful happiness. Ms. Moon’s exquisite “When Hope Goes” explains to theatergoers how the town and its residents have changed over the years. In “Forgotten Lullaby,” Ms. McArdle’s Hannah finds that deep-seated memories have stirred up buried feelings that begin haunting her.
Ms. Hoffmann, whose sweet, piercing soprano has an arresting quality, performs some of its catchiest songs, two being “Out of the Frying Pan” and “Shine,”—both restrained, but simmering. Later, she and Ms. Moon bring that restraint to their scenes together, peeling back their characters’ fragile vulnerabilities. Their charming duet, “The Colors of Paradise,” lets them hide their feelings for each other behind admiration of nature. On a lighter note, Ms. Godwin, Mr. Berry and Mr. Canty, team up for the percussive “Ice and Snow” to an engaging effect.
Music Director Glen Rovinelli, also credited in a character role, is a one-man-band altogether, and performs on several of the 72 different instruments he plays.
Ms. Godwin provides the comic relief for the most part, but there are moments when even Effy is moved by what is going on. And Mr. Canty’s Caleb is not simply a villain; he is afforded an opportunity to explore his own lost life melancholy in “Digging Stone,” a tribute to the quarry that has shut down and the men who worked there. The local and quite lonely sheriff, however, has his eye set on Percy for matrimonial purposes. Mr. Berry’s charming and convincing Joe is not only winning but enthralling, singing to her of his own wishes for the future in “This Wide Woods.” Soon, Percy’s protective walls begin to crumble, and secrets are revealed.
CAST: JULIA HOFFMANN as Percy Talbott; NOAH BERRY as Sheriff Joe Sutter; MISSY McARDLE as Hannah Ferguson; ALEX CANTY as Caleb Thorpe; SARAH GODWIN as Effy Krayneck; ANNELIESE MOON as Shelby Thorpe; GRANT ALEXANDER BROWN as The Visitor; GLEN ROVINELLI as The Musician.
CREW: Director STEVE STEINER; Executive Producing Director ELLEN RICHARD; Musical Director GLEN ROVINELLI; Scenic Designer CHRIS STRANGFELD; Lighting Designer CLIFFORD SPULOCK; Sound Designer IAN WEHRLE; Musical Staging PAULA SLOAN; Production Stage Manager KELLIAN FRANK; Assistant Stage Manager ALLYSUN MELLICK-BERRY; Production Supervisor GAIL ANDERSON.
Celebrating 100 years, Laguna Playhouse presents “THE SPITFIRE GRILL,” opening January 30th (Limited Engagement begins January 26) and running through February 13th. Music and Book by James Valeq, Lyrics and Book by Fred Alley, based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30PM; Saturdays at 2PM & 7:30PM; Sundays at 1PM. Approximately two hours with one intermission. Vaccination protocols are in place and subject to verification. Laguna Playhouse is located at: 606 Laguna Canyon Rd. in Laguna Beach. Tickets can be purchased by calling (949) 497-2787, or purchase online at: www.lagunaplayhouse.com
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Niedle