With its compelling storyline, colorful cast of small-town characters, gorgeous folk-meets-Broadway score, and much-needed message of forgiveness and redemption, James Valcq and James Alley’s The Spitfire Grill gave Musical Theatre Guild audiences ample reason to stand up and cheer (and wipe away a few tears) at last night’s one-night-only concert staged reading at Glendale’s historic Alex Theatre.
Like the 1996 Sundance Audience Award-winning film by Lee David Zlotoff on which it is based, Valcq and Alley’s 2001 off-Broadway adaptation introduces audiences—and Gilead, Wisconsin—to 20something Percy Talbott (Alyssa M. Simmons), fresh out of prison and hoping to start a new life in a town whose autumn colors glimpsed in a travel guide promise new beginnings to a woman whose life has been the very definition of hard-knock.
Introduced to Spitfire Grill owner Hannah Ferguson (Marsha Kramer) by her parole officer Sheriff Joe Sutter (Marc Ginsburg), Percy first finds herself waitressing unfriendly customers suspicious of a stranger in their midst, then making unfortunate attempts at cooking when a broken leg has Hannah temporarily out of service.
It doesn’t help that Hannah’s nephew Caleb (Christopher Carothers) is the suspicious sort or that gossipy mail carrier Effie (Eileen Barnett) soon has townsfolk believing the worst of Percy. (“They say she has tattoos!”)
At least our plucky heroine’s got fellow Spitfire employee, Caleb’s wife Shelby (Melissa Lyons Caldretti), around to provide moral support and a bit of local history. (It seems the entire town lost hope when Hannah’s son Eli went off to fight in Vietnam and never came back.)
No wonder then that Hannah’s been trying to sell the Grill for the past ten years. No wonder, too, that given its less than favorable location far from the nearest major highway, there hasn’t been a single taker so far.
Then one day Percy comes up with the idea of holding a hundred-dollar-an-entry essay contest whose first prize will be the deed to the grill, and before long the town is buzzing about the sackloads of submissions arriving on the Spitfire doorstep, each more heartrending than the next, and the contest to win the Spitfire Grill is going full steam ahead.
Valcq and Alley’s feel-good gem of a book is complemented by Valcq’s catchy melodies, making this one musical whose songs you’ll likely hear echoing in your head long after Hannah has determined her grill’s future owner.
Having played Effie at the Laguna Playhouse and Hannah at Actors Co-op, director Linda Kerns proves an apt choice to helm The Spitfire Grill for Musical Theatre Guild, and if last night’s reading seemed at times more concert than staged, actors often performing behind music stands and stage directions ably read by Tara Battani, the approach seemed not inappropriate for a dialog-and-song-based musical without a single dance number to its name.
Performances could not have been more memorable beginning with Simmons’ wounded but resilient Percy and Caldretti’s warm, nurturing Shelby, and with Simmons’ mezzo and Caldretti’s soprano two of the most glorious in town, Valcq and Alley’s songs could not have been more stunningly sung.
Kramer’s crusty but tender-hearted Hannah proved among the MTG treasure’s finest performances, with Ginsburg’s handsome, heroic Joe yet another example of one of L.A.’s premier musical theater leads at his best.
Barnett earned multiple chuckles as busybody par excellence Effie, Carothers made the most of the male chauvinist that is Caleb, and Shiroma left an indelible impression as “The Visitor” without uttering a word.
Art Brickman was stage manager and Mara Aguilar was assistant stage manager. David Crane was production coordinator.
With its heartwarmingly homespun feel, it’s no wonder that The Spitfire Grill has become a community theater favorite. Still it takes voices like Simmons’ and Caldretti’s for the musical to truly soar, and soar it did at the Alex. Chalk up another winner for Musical Theater Guild.
Alex Theatre, Glendale.
November 13, 2106
Photos: Alan Weston