A young woman fresh out of prison seeks a second chance at life in James Valcq and James Alley’s powerhouse chamber musical The Spitfire Grill, the gorgeously directed-and-performed latest from Solana Beach’s North Coast Repertory 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 (Aurora Florence), hoping to begin life anew 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 (Devlin) by her parole officer Sheriff Joe Sutter (Kevin Earley), 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 (Kevin Bailey) is the suspicious sort or that gossipy mail carrier Effie (Maggie Carney) 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 (Meghan Andrews), 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 bluegrass-folk-pop 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.

 With musical director Alby Potts and the Grill’s four-piece live band providing terrific backup throughout, director Jeffrey B. Moss has elicited one splendid performance after another from a couldn’t-be-better, mostly L.A.-San Diego-based cast.

Florence makes a stunning SoCal debut as Percy, hardened by life but not yet minus humanity and heart, her seductive country-pop vocals made even more remarkable when you spot legit-soprano Eliza Doolittle topping Florence’s résumé.

 Andrews is terrific too as a young wife taking baby steps towards a sense of identity outside a stifling yet not loveless marriage, and Devlin’s powerhouse Hannah lets loose some of the richest, most resonant pipes in town.

And speaking of pipes, tenors don’t get any more soaring than those of Broadway star Earley, agelessly reprising the role he played in The Spitfire Grill’s 2002 Laguna Playhouse West Coast Premiere to romantic-heroic effect.

Bailey humanizes the domineering Caleb while giving him his own signature tenor, Carney is a hoot and a holler as busybody Effie, and Matt Thompson’s wordless The Visitor speaks volumes with his eyes.

 Marty Burnett’s scenic design takes a bare set, adds a few chairs, a diner counter, and Andrea Gutierrez’s grill-ready kitchen-and-dining room props, then lets Aaron Rumley’s evocative projections and our imaginations do the rest.

Matt Novotny lights set and Elisa Benzoni’s appropriately homespun costumes and Peter Herman’s fittingly frumpy hair and wig designs with a burnished glow.

 Chad Lee Thymes’ expert sound design mixes ever-so-subtly amped voices with musicians Catherine Gray, Nikko Nobleza, Potts, and George Spelvin.

Cindy Rumley is stage manager.

With its compelling storyline, colorful cast of small-town characters, gorgeous folk-meets-Broadway score, and much-needed message of forgiveness and redemption, North Coast Rep’s exquisite The Spitfire Grill grabs you from Percy’s arrival in Gilead and never lets go.

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North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

–Steven Stanley
June 10, 2017
Photos: Aaron Rumley


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