If after the events of recent weeks you need any reason at all to embrace life again, the musical you've been waiting for has arrived at the New Duke on 42nd Street. The Spitfire Grill, produced by Playwright's Horizons, is one of the most heartfelt musicals of recent years, its homespun charms as inviting as a warm winter blanket.
Basing the show on the short-lived 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff, James Valcq and the late Fred Alley have truly made The Spitfire Grill at home on the stage. The title refers to the name of the restaurant where a woman, played by Garrett Long, gets a job after being released from prison. Though there is a plot, The Spitfire Grill is more intent at examining the relationships she forms with the others in the town and what happens as a result.
The story about someone with a troubled past wanting to start over may be as familiar as the traditional values the show espouses, but is here never cloying or pandering. Valcq and Alley keep the show's words and sentiments honest and true throughout. And when that outsider changes the lives of the townfolk through her actions, everything about it seems fresh and new; if we've seen a story like this a hundred times before, it's news to Valcq and Alley.
Garrett Long has the play's central role of Percy, the ex-convict who decides to start a new life in rural Gilead, Wisconsin ("a place for leaving, not for coming to"). She has a strong voice and a charming sense of humor that make her seem as likable as the girl next door. Her parole officer, Sheriff Joe Sutter, is played by Steven Pasquale, who has a strong voice, and brings Joe's convictions of a better life beyond Gilead easily to the surface. There is real chemistry between Long and Pasquale, which make some of the play's later scenes particularly moving.
Phyllis Somerville, owner of the Spitfire Grill, is by turns gruff and motherly, but always likable. Mary Gordon Murray, as Effy, the town's meddling post-mistress, provides most of the show's comedy, but never overpowers the show's more seriously elements. Stephen Sinclair and Armand Schultz do fine in smaller roles.
Special mention must, however, be made of Liz Callaway. Though she has earnest competition, she gives the play's most powerful performance as Shelby, the third employee of the Spitfire. Dealing with her old-fashioned husband, Caleb, and the new world she's being exposed to, Ms. Callaway sings her first song, the lovely "When Hope Goes," with such honesty and strength that she melts your heart.
David Saint provides strong direction, allowing all of the actors to work together seamlessly. With the help of Michael Anania's charming, rustic unit set (the pieces of which seem to represent nearly the entire town at one point or another), Howell Binkley's lights, and Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes, the town of Gilead truly comes alive.
Ultimately, though, it is the book and score by Valcq and Alley that make The Spitfire Grill so special. The book is particularly strong, never lagging, and seeming almost to sing on its own. The score isn't quite its equal, but is very good overall. Each of the songs has a strong folksy quality that works very well for the material. Though one or two numbers go on a little too long, and Schultz's song, "Digging Stone," feels as though it was included only to give him a solo, the rest of the score works quite well. The group numbers, including "Something's Cooking at the Spitfire Grill," the stirring first act finale "Shoot the Moon," and the touching "Come Alive Again," are among the strongest in the show, and beautifully constructed. Valcq's orchestrations, played by musical director Andrew Wilder and his four piece orchestra, perfectly capture the atmosphere.
The Spitfire Grill may be the only place to eat in Gilead, but even in New York, with a vast wealth of other theatrical possibilities, it should still be near the top of your list. As Percy and the people of Gilead need healing and work toward finding life again, so must we after the troubled events of the last few weeks. If the weight of the world has got you down, The Spitfire Grill is just what the doctor ordered.