A stage company like Palm Beach Dramaworks, known for “theater to think about,” could hardly make a lightweight choice for its first musical produced within a subscription season. So it selected The Spitfire Grill, a 2001 off-Broadway show based on an acclaimed – but also little seen – independent film about hope and redemption.
“‘Spitfire Grill’ is probably one of the most profoundly human stories in musical theater,” says Bruce Linser, director of The Spitfire Grill. “I can’t abide big, splashy musicals, and this is the antidote to that. This is the type of work that I really like to explore.”
The show’s plot concerns young ex-convict Percy Talbott, who takes a job in a restaurant in the fictional town of Gilead, Wis. She not only changes the lives of its customers and staff, but she hatches a plan to raffle off the diner.
Adapted into a musical by the songwriting team of composer James Valcq and lyricist Fred Alley, the show premiered to acclaim and popularity in New Jersey. But before it could transfer to the prestigious Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan, Alley died suddenly of a heart attack at age 38. Still, it did open off-Broadway on Sept. 7, 2001, and again got good reviews, but four days later, attacks on the World Trade Center plunged the nation into turmoil and made a commercial run of this sweet, hopeful musical unfeasible.
You could call The Spitfire Grill the musical with fatally lousy luck, but regional productions of the show have cropped up ever since, including one at Manalapan’s Florida Stage in 2002.
Linser has been a fan of the show ever since he saw a student production a few years ago at Florida Atlantic University. “This story is profoundly human. There isn’t a person on the planet who can’t relate to yearning, to longing, that can’t relate to holding ourselves back, not allowing ourselves to move forward,” says Linser.
“It’s set in Wisconsin, but it’s not an Upper Midwest musical. It’s a musical for everybody because of its universality. The result is really beautiful, deep and profound.”
Linser says of the score, “I think it’s incredibly heartfelt. I think it surprises, like things like ‘Light in the Piazza’ or ‘Once.’ I’m watching it and I’m taken away by it and suddenly I’m weeping and I’m not even sure why. The resonances of how they put the chords together just hit you and surprise you. They evoke emotion that you’re not necessarily expecting.”
To conduct and re-orchestrate the musical. Linser tapped Joshua Lubben, one of the trio of brothers who showed off their instrumental skills by accompanying Woody Guthrie’s American Song last summer.
“What I love about this show is that it wants to maintain all of the elements of folk music,” notes Lubben. “Every single song in this musical is so integral. The music is just as much a part of the characters and their development as every line of their dialogue.”
Lubben was actually already familiar with the show, because his brother Tom had played accordion in the pit for a production a few years ago. “I remember thinking that it was extremely unique, which is probably why it wasn’t very successful,” he suggests. “But I was surprised that it was extremely upbeat and engaging. It wasn’t long or tedious. It wasn’t cheesy.”
At Dramaworks, where The Spitfire Grill opened a four-week run Friday, the female-centric cast includes Ashley Rose as Percy, Elizabeth Dimon as grill owner Hannah, Amy Miller Brennan as weak-willed, spousally abused Shelby and Patti Gardner as Gilead’s busybody postal mistress, Effie.
To Gardner, the show speaks to “a need to be an integral part of something, friends who become family. My character is pretty much a loner. She doesn’t have a family, but this town is her family and her strength, her sense of belonging.”
“Flinty” is the word Dimon uses to describe her character, the grill’s proprietor. “She has become embittered. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. What you see is what you get. And yet she’s got a secret, a big one.”
“It’s definitely a piece that speaks to today’s issues,” says Brennan. “So many issues with women and feminism. This play brings to light sexual abuse and spousal abuse, the hardships that woman have to go through in this world. Even though it’s set in the ’90s, these people are still stuck in the mindset of women in the kitchen and men out in the workplace.”
“You see this through line of strength in women,” she adds. “Despite very different journeys, these women all possess the strength that in turn helps each other. They learn from each other.”
“Percy is the catalyst ultimately for change in everybody else’s journey,” says Rose of her role. Although the Valcq-Alley score plays a vital role in the show’s emotional through line, “It really feels more like a play with music. Because the text is so strong.” Still, she adds, “The music just takes it to another level. When you have no words left, you break into song.”
“What I think is so wonderful is how the music is so interwoven into the story,” says Dimon. “You’re talking and then you’re singing and then you’re talking, but the music is still going. That’s a challenge.”
Perhaps The Spitfire Grill was just ahead of its time. “I think there’s definitely a market for it now. Because this is a time where, more than ever, we need to come together,” offers Linser.
“At a time when so many people are hungry for change and for something refreshing, this is about something that will change you for the better. You really can’t go to this show and leave the same way.”
THE SPITFIRE GRILL, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Now playing through Feb. 24. $75. (561) 514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.