The Spitfire Grill
The Spitfire Grill still sparkles. The award winning musical, a reprise production from September 2002, literally glows through the book, music, and lyrics by Wisconsin natives and friends James Valcq and Fred Alley – especially on this particular Saturday night, when the four piece orchestra played under composer Valcq’s guest direction.
Based on the 1996 film The Spitfire Grill by David Lee Zlotoff, first screened at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, Valcq and Alley adapted the movie to one of a small Midwestern town: Gilead, Wisconsin. This is where the young ex-convict Percy Talbot dreams of starting over and setting down deep roots, but finds little to love when she reaches Gilead’s only restaurant and discovers its few inhabitants discouraged by life. But as Percy learns to forgive what others think and say about her and how they treat her as she participates in rural living, she also learns to forgive herself for committing a crime of desperation. Overlooking a bright morning sunrise, Percy ultimately begins to believe when she sings that “A diamond of hope shines a light in this dark heart of mine.”
The cast of The Spitfire Grill lives out the frustration of a bleak Wisconsin winter on the Skylight’s spare, rough-hewn set, showcasing an open staircase of timber. Yet Alley’s compassionate lyrics, set to Valcq’s lovely melodies, resonate as a paradise of color, similar to a hill of October trees, enhances the backdrop through scene changes on the stage. From the opening “A Ring Around the Moon” to the charming “Into the Frying Pan,” Valcq’s rhythms use every frying pan lid, clanking car chain and snow shovel as percussion in a perfectly-timed performance. In an exceptionally poignant moment of music, Shelby Thorpe — the young woman helping in the grill when owner Hannah breaks her leg — comforts Percy after she reveals her personal grief with the haunting “Wild Bird.”
Today’s audiences still applaud this tale of redemption and hope, which won the Richard Rodger’s Production Award in 2001. Alley, who died only a month before the honor was awarded, continually lives on in through this performance and all his art. The musical resonates evocatively when the lyrics, “Shoot the Moon … Life is hard and gone to soon” resound on stage. His songs speak to the simple but profound truths in life, always delivered with a smile.
Since its 2001 premiere in New York, The Spitfire Grill has played continually across the country with over 250 productions. This year the musical reaches London. Amid the year’s soaring gas prices, stagnant stock markets, unsettling global economies and lingering world tragedies, The Spitfire Grill remembers timeless themes of renewal and hope. There are plenty of diamonds in these rural scenes of Gilead to catch the light and shine through society’s darkness, illuminating the human spirit. VS
The Skylight’s The Spitfire Grill continues until June 15 in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. 414.291.7800 or skylightopera.com.