The Spitfire Grill
The Spitfire Grill at the Lyric Stage Company now through March 13th is the musical equivalent of "comfort food." This down-home, feel-good tale awash with hybrid folk/country/pop ballad tunes was a definite audience pleaser at Sunday afternoon's opening. Their response is a testament that James Valcq (music and book) and the late Fred Alley (lyrics and book) knew what they were after when they pursued the rights to Lee David Zlotoff's film, winner of the 1996 Sundance Festival's Audience Award.
Six sample songs intended to win over Zlotoff got passed along to David Saint, Artistic Director of New Jersey's George Street Playhouse. He brought in Arthur Laurents to mentor the writers and gave the show a first production. Plotlines were thinned down, the locale switched to the writers' home state of Wisconsin, and a more positive ending was contrived as the movie morphed into a seven-character musical that could be performed on a simple unit set.
Thanks to a Richard Rogers Production Award, the next move was to Playwrights Horizons in the fall of 2001. Not a precipitous time for a new musical to find economic backing for a commercial transfer, the run was brief despite having offered solace to the New Yorkers who sought it out in the days following the 9/11 attack.
While it shared a venue and a kinship in musical roots with Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins and Jeanine Tesori's Violet, the similarities end there. Those two critically acclaimed works are anything but "feel good" and often fail to attract a wide audience. The Spitfire Grill, both as a film and as a musical, hasn't always garnered critical raves, but it does spread good cheer and find its audience. Helped by an original cast recording on Triangle Road Records, the musical is doing just that in regional theatres across the country.
Director Spiro Veloudos has assembled an appealing cast headed by winning newcomer Elizabeth Hayes as the paroled convict who stirs things up. Hayes has the right combination of grit and sweetness to make Percy palpable and is ably supported by a cast who know how to wring ever ounce of humor and pathos out of the overwrought situations.
Bobbie Steinbach is delightful as usual as a crusty old lady with a heart of marshmallow. Maryann Zschau shows us a new side as the milquetoast housewife who befriends Percy. Christopher Chew succumbs quite charmingly to the appeal of his young parolee and his hometown when seen through her eyes. The rest of the townsfolk are well represented by Derek Stearns, Cheryl McMahon and Floyd Richardson as an able-bodied young man with no future, a middle-aged busybody and a mysterious homeless man.
The lively ensemble numbers worked best for me. The show takes off with "Something's Cooking at the Spitfire Grill," a number that introduces the town of Gilead. "Ice and Snow" is made fun by using garden tools as percussion instruments to deliver us from winter into spring. "Shoot the Moon" ends the exposition-heavy first act on an upswing, and "Come Alive Again" gets things rolling again after intermission.
The rest of the numbers left a rather generic impression, blending together after awhile and slowing the progress of this plot-heavy musical. Music director Jonathan Goldberg and his nifty ensemble do the best they can to fulfill the obligation of musically conveying the physical beauty of Gilead that Percy is selling and the spiritual peace she finds there.
This difficult burden is partially shared by set designer Brynna Bloomfield and lighting designer Scott Pinckney who rise to the challenge for the most part. But, because most of the set looks quite literally like a restaurant, I was sometimes confused as to where we were supposed to be when the space represents another location.
While I may not have been totally won over by what's served up at The Spitfire Grill, I recommend you try the "specials" and do leave room for dessert because there are plenty of treats.
The Spitfire Grill, now through March 13th at the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St. (Copley Square), Boston, Mass (in the YWCA Building.) Performances times are: Wednesday & Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 4pm & 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with Wednesday matinees at 2pm (February 18th and March 10th only.) Tickets are $22 - $43 depending on the performance time and seat location; $10 Student Rush is available 1/2 hour before each performance. Tickets can be purchased at the Lyric Stage box office (617) 437-7172 or online at www.lyricstage.com.