By Kelli Allred
The film version of The Spitfire Grill gave viewers at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival a thrill that earned the film critical recognition, high praise, and the Audience Award. When writers James Valqc and Fred Alley transformed the screenplay into a musical for the stage, their script won accolades in the form of the Richard Rogers Production Award presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Basing their show on the screenplay by Lee David Zlotoff, Valqc and Alley reshaped the story into an intimate, character-driven musical. According to theatre critic Jerry Kraft, “vivid and sympathetic individuals create a genuine community and the well-crafted and dramatically focused songs move the story to a gratifying . . . conclusion” (Aisle Say, http://www.aislesay.com/WA-SPITFIRE.html).
First produced on a New Jersey stage in the fall of 2000, The Spitfire Grill moved to Broadway in September 2001, playing only three performances before the tragedy that closed down much of New York theatre on September 11, 2001. The show lasted four weeks longer in a city devastated by tragedy, but has since enjoyed numerous productions across the country. Popular among community and regional theatres because of its themes of renewal and healing, The Spitfire Grill brings to the 2004 Utah Shakespeare Festival an uplifting production that captures the heart and soul of America better than most American musicals.
The Spitfire Grill is a stage musical rife with the sounds of banjos, guitars, fiddles, and all the other instruments closely associated with American folk music. Indeed, “folksy” is the word most often used to describe the timbre of The Spitfire Grill, whose result is “affecting musical storytelling with lyrics and spoken dialogue so seamlessly integrated that shortcomings don’t seem to matter” (Sommer, Elysse, Curtain Up, 2001). Kraft further observes, “The songs almost always feel like the natural result of character and situation, and not superfluous or contrived” (Aisle Say). It is not a dancing musical; rather, the music transports the characters and audience from inside the café to the great outdoors that is Gilead, a sleepy Wisconsin hamlet. The lyrics have a conversational tone that contributes to the easy transitions between music and dialogue. The songs sung by the chorus are among the most upbeat in the production. The petty townsfolk are, at times, reminiscent of a larger chorus from River City, Iowa. Several of the show’s comic numbers are “jaunty and amusing,” especially the group numbers that reflect the emotions and attitudes of Gilead’s staid residents (Curtain Up).
The story is tough, yet touching. And although there is a plot, The Spitfire Grill focuses on relationships formed among the townsfolk and what happens as a result. The story is an honest account of an outsider who changes the lives of strangers through her actions. The central character is Percy, an ex-convict who decides to start a new life in “a place for leaving, not for coming to”—Gilead, Wisconsin. Gilead is just one of the play’s many allusions to old-time religion. In Old Testament times, a bush producing the resin from which healing balm was made grew so plentifully in Gilead (Israel) that the balm came to be known as the ‘balm of Gilead’ (Jeremiah 46:11). This allusion supports the themes of healing and hope, not unlike the traditional folk song: “There is a balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole. / There is a balm in Gilead what heals the sin-sick soul.”
The Spitfire Grill, a modern folk tale set in the fictional town of Gilead, gets its title from the town’s only café, the Spitfire Grill. Soon after Hannah grudgingly gives Percy a job at the Grill, Hannah is injured and is forced to depend on Percy. Although Percy’s cooking leaves much to be desired, Percy is assisted in the Grill by Shelby, thwarted by Shelby’s husband Caleb, courted quietly by Sheriff Joe, and gossiped about by the townspeople, led by the irascible Effy. By story’s end, both Percy and Hannah achieve “freedom from their self-imposed imprisonment,” which becomes the play’s resolution (Willows Theatre Company, http://www.willowstheatre.org/PressRoom/SpitfireGrill/Spitfire_Press_1.html).
Throughout the plot, Percy’s personal odyssey takes her “from prison to the natural world, from corrosive guilt to self-forgiveness, and from isolation to community.” One theater critic describes Percy as “the kind of person you dream of meeting, the kind who suddenly appears in your life and profoundly changes it forever” (Jaques, Damien, “Door Shakespeare Follows Its ‘Dream,’” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 3 Aug, 2002).
Hannah is not the only character in need of healing balm, and Percy is not the only character in the play that stands in need of hope. In the end, the wasted community has been handed hope and renewal on a silver platter held forth by unexpected circumstance.
A Theatrical Banquet
The story behind The Spitfire Grill is as compelling as the musical itself. Before collaborating on the musical, writer Fred Alley had previously written and produced plays and musicals with the assistance of James Valcq and James Kaplan, mostly for the Wisconsin based American Folklore Theatre. The Broadway success of The Spitfire Grill was followed closely by tragedy, when the show’s thirty-eight-year-old lyricist Fred Alley died unexpectedly of a heart attack while jogging. Before his untimely death in May 2001, Alley authored or collaborated on some twenty productions and wrote the scripts and lyrics for several of the most popular productions at Wisconsin’s American Folklore Theatre. In 2002, Alley was honored posthumously with the Mark R. Sumner Award for Distinguished Achievement, presented by the National Conference on Outdoor Drama. No stranger to Shakespeare, Alley was instrumental in launching the Door County Shakespeare Festival, which debuted in 1995 (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, http://www.unc.edu/depts./outdoor/news/2002/2002 sumnerawardwinner.html).
The Spitfire Grill offers a theatrical banquet: mystery, romance, music, friendship, broken hearts, and familial love mingled with themes of starting over, unconditional love, and the bliss of life in small-town America. The lyrics tell us to “Say what you want, play it where you will, someone should keep singing the songs from The Spitfire Grill.” This play will continue to be a favorite among regional and community theatres because of its casting and staging requirements, as well as its down to earth story. After its brief Broadway run, the show returned to Wisconsin, where it played in Milwaukee’s Skylight Theater, on whose ceiling is printed a phrase that has lent comfort and understanding to audiences—“To help us forget some things, /remember others / and to refresh dry places in our spirit.”
A warm and engaging musical, The Spitfire Grill deserves wide performance and is sure to appeal to Cedar City locals and visiting audiences in 2004 (Edler, Molly S. “Skylight’s Spitfire Grill Turns Tragedy into Triumph,” 30 Sep 2002, On Milwaukee, http://www.milwaukee.com).