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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Spitfire Grill is a
Warmhearted Musical

Also see Richard's review of West Side Story

The Willows Theatre Company is presenting the Bay Area Premiere of James Valcq and Fred Alley's The Spitfire Grill, which is based on the film of the same name. The musical opened Off Broadway at the Duke on 42nd Street in October, 2001, to the post-traumatic New Yorkers following 9/11. The Appalachian-style songs provided a soothing balm to help heal the aching city's heart. The normally acerbic New York Magazine drama critic John Simon said "What even in normal times would be a joy is, in these troubled ones, sheer nourishment". The Spitfire Grill won the 2001 Richard Rodgers Production Award and was nominated for "Outstanding Off Broadway Musical" by the New York Outer Critics Circles. Since that time there have been productions in Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Los Angeles.

The Spitfire Grill musical closely follows the 1996 independent film. The setting is a small town in rural Wisconsin which has been economically depressed since the local mine closed several years back. The heroine is Percy Talbott (Nina Auslander), just been released from prison where she served time on a manslaughter charge. This big city girl is good hearted and just wants peace and quiet for the rest of her life. She arrives in Gilead looking to make a new life for herself, and she wants trouble with no one.

Local Sheriff and parole officer Joe Sutter (Jon Marshall) helps her obtain a waitress job and a room with Hannah (Barbara Grant), the cantankerous proprietor of the only diner in town. The locals don't trust Percy at first, but they soon come around since she has a generous heart. Hannah takes a spill, breaking her hip, and Percy finds herself running the eatery with the help of a timid but friendly woman named Shelby (Murphy Hart Rowan), wife of Hannah's discontented nephew Caleb (Daniel Olson).

The citizens of the town are haunted by their past, so Percy dreams up a possible solution - an essay raffle to sell the Spitfire Grill. This scheme unites all of the characters in a friendship unlike any they've experienced and inspires the community to become aware of the beauty and possibility that surrounds them.

The Spitfire GrillThe Spitfire Grill is a very warmhearted character driven musical with a small cast of vivid and sympathetic individuals. The songs are country-style folk and alternate between somber and uplifting. There are toe-tapping comic romps, and the melodies are well crafted and pleasant. The ensembles numbers are better than some of the solo songs. Many of the songs have a sort of similarity, but they serve the story well. The outstanding songs are "Shoot the Moon," featuring the vibrant image of performers tossing a blizzard of letters in the air, and the thrilling "Ice and Snow," which involves the clever choreographic concept of two men using axes.

This production has a strong cast of singers and actors headed by Nina Auslander who plays Percy. She is refreshing, with a tomboy appearance, and has a certain rustic charm and a twangy voice, especially in her solo numbers like "Shine." Barbara Grant as Hannah gives a superlative performance, and she shows great vocal chops in the song "Forgotten Lullaby," one of the loveliest moments of the musical. Grant is one of the most underappreciated talents in the Bay Area.

Jon Marshall as the romantic sheriff and Murphy Hart Rowan as the mousy waitress elevate their characters above apparent stereotypes. Jon stands out in the song "Forest for the Trees" while Rowan is bell clear in the song "Wild Bird." Daniel Olson has a powerful voice as Caleb in "Digging Stone." Lucinda Hitchcock Cone is wonderful as the noisy and gossipy postmistress of the small town, and Jeff Lowe as The Visitor has little to do but look and act mysterious.

In addtion to assembling this excellent cast, director Richard Elliott uses a small quintet led by Andrew Frederick Holtz with Nick DiScala at the keyboard. The set by Peter Crompton is a versatile all wooden set that can be moved from inside the Grill around to the front of the eatery. It is moved by two young men who receive applause for their hard work of repeatedly moving this set around. Some of the scenes are very brief, and moving the huge set often seems unnecessary and stops the flow of the drama. Lighting by Chris Guptill and Costumes by Loran Watkins are first rate.

The Spitfire Grill runs through October 26 at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd. Concord, Ca. For tickets call 925-798-1300 or visit www.willowstheatre.org.

The final production of the 2003 will be Meshuggah-Nuns starting November 10.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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