Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Spitfire Grill
Arizona Broadway Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's review of A Bench in the Sun

Marina Blue Jarrette, Greta Perlmutter,
and Barbara McBain

Photo Courtesy of Arizona Broadway Theatre
There have been dozens of stage musicals based on films. Many of them have been huge successes while many have failed miserably. Then there are stage adaptations like The Spitfire Grill that, unfortunately, started previews Off-Broadway in 2001 just days before the horrors of September 11th and never truly found its audience. It's a shame this rich, rewarding and excellent musical based on the 1996 film didn't become an instant hit. Fortunately, it has gone on to have hundreds of productions across the country, including the current, glorious production at Arizona Broadway Theatre that has a powerhouse cast and superb direction. It's a crowd-pleasing, underrated gem of a musical that delivers an abundance of emotions and a beautiful sense of forgiveness, friendship, love, redemption and compassion.

The plot centers on Percy Talbott, who has just been released after serving five years in prison. Seeking a fresh start, Percy finds her way to a small town in Wisconsin called Gilead that she read about in a book from the prison library. Percy quickly realizes that Gilead isn't the idyllic place she thought it would be, as its glory days are behind it now that its quarries have closed. But Joe, the local sheriff, finds Percy work and a place to stay at the Spitfire Grill, the only local place to eat, which is run by the spirited Hannah Ferguson. At first, Hannah treats Percy with contempt, but after Percy comes to Hannah's aid when she breaks her leg, a friendship is started that also includes Shelby, the wife of Hannah's over protective nephew Caleb, who helps Percy run the Spitfire while Hannah heals. However, there are secrets in the pasts of several characters' lives that not even the busybody town gossip Effy knows about that could threaten to tear apart the friendships and the fate of Percy's future.

Based on the film that was written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff, this small-cast musical has so much depth, imagery and emotion baked into its lyrics and dialogue that there is a lot to love, relish and discover. The book by James Valcq and Fred Alley is incredibly well crafted with not a single scene or line of dialogue unnecessary to the action. The book makes several changes to the movie plot and characters, streamlining the action and adding in a whole new ending. All of these changes work extremely well to center the action on Percy and the other Gilead residents, as does the rich, emotion-packed score. Valcq's soaring music features a blend of folk, country, and emotive pop ballads, and the intelligent, poetic lyrics by Alley handsomely and succinctly depict the feelings of a country dealing with the aftermath of the Vietnam war and the clarity of living in a small town. Another unfortunate fate the musical suffered is that Alley died just a week before its 2001 Off-Broadway workshop, which only makes me wonder, based on how impressive their work is here, what amazing material Valcq and Alley could have created together if Alley hadn't died.

Director Danny Gorman does exceptional work here, including an excitingly staged opening sequence that depicts Percy's journey from prison to Gilead, and he has assembled a terrific cast of Phoenix locals who excel at making the emotion and realism of their complicated, three-dimensional characters resonate.

As Percy, Greta Perlmutter makes her ABT debut in a stellar performance that radiates truth and resilience. Perlmutter does an exceptional job depicting this high-spirited young woman who has suffered and who is afraid and unsure of anyone who tries to offer her help, let alone friendship, but Percy is also a rough-edged, strong woman with secrets and sadness in her past yet she is always hopeful for her future. Perlmutter does an excellent job portraying the range of emotions that Percy deals with throughout her journey.

Barbara McBain is appropriately feisty and stubborn as Hannah, the irritable and sour, widowed owner of the Spitfire. McBain expertly masks Hannah's vulnerability with a no-nonsense line delivery and hardened facial expressions, yet during a few key moments in the show she skillfully depicts the pain in Hannah's past. Marina Blue Jarrette is excellent as Shelby, the quiet and mousey wife who yearns for her independence. All three women have wonderful singing voices that are rich and strong and imbue their lyrics with a range of fitting emotions. Perlmutter and Jarrette deliver several ballads that soar, and McBain's earthy, rich delivery of her two solos are infused with feeling.

Nicholas Hambruch is impressive as the lonely and vulnerable, but big hearted, Sheriff Joe with a singing voice that is clear, strong, and simply stunning. Darren Friedman does a very good job as the show's antagonist, Hannah's bitter, domineering nephew Caleb, but effectively ensures that he doesn't just come across as the show's bad guy but a man with his own struggles and issues. Carolyn McPhee uses perfectly delivered facial expressions and a sassy line delivery as the judgmental and nosey Effy. Friedman and McPhee also have rich and warm singing voices. In a small role, Tim Shawver may not have much to say, but his perfectly expressed body language, facial expressions, and stage presence add appropriate emotion to his several scenes.

The intimacy of ABT's Encore Room setting provides an immediate connection between the plight of the seven characters in the show and the audience. The wonderful set design by Jacob Nalley uses an abundance of wood and tree imagery and gorgeous video designs that quickly draw us into the deep-wood setting of the show. Rebekah Ryan's attractive lighting design works incredibly well to depict not only the various times of day and the change of seasons but also, in combination with the video imagery, a gorgeous sunrise. Carter Conaway's costume designs are rich and character specific. Adam Berger's music direction shines and soars throughout and, while the production uses pre-recorded musical tracks, they are gorgeous recordings that feature Valcq's rich, layered orchestrations played by a range of instruments.

Before I moved to Phoenix, I worked in New York City for over 25 years and was fortunate to have seen both the 2000 premiere of this musical at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey as well as a performance during the 2001 Off-Broadway run, both of which were impressive. Arizona Broadway Theatre's production is just as good, with a top-notch cast, rich creative aspects, and striking direction. The Spitfire Grill is an excellent musical that touches upon pain, suffering, lost dreams and anguish but also a show about second chances, hope, and newborn dreams. ABT's production of this beautiful musical is one of the best shows I've seen in town in the last several years.

The Spitfire Grill runs through September 5, 2021, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 623-776-8400.

Direction: Danny Gorman
Associate Director: Ken Urso
Music Direction: Adam Berger
Scenic Design: Jacob Nalley
Lighting Design: Rebekah Ryan
Costume Design: Carter Conaway
Stage Manager: Mandy Spartz
Production Stage Manager: Leigh Treat
Production Coordinator: Jamie Parnell
Associate Artistic Director: Kurtis Overby
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting & Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake

Percy Talbott: Greta Perlmutter
Hannah Ferguson: Barbara McBain
Shelby Thorpe: Marina Blue Jarrette
Caleb Thorpe: Darren Friedman
Sheriff Joe Sutter: Nicholas Hambruch
Effy Krayneck: Carolyn McPhee
The Visitor: Tim Shawver