The Spitfire Grill
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 13, 2005
Let me begin by saying that I liked the current revival of the musical The Spitfire Grill at Gallery Players a lot. It is an enjoyable and worthwhile experience, and an unexpectedly moving one, as well, in spite of some occasionally flat acting and directing. You may wonder how that’s possible, to which I can only say: my enjoyment of The Spitfire Grill relied as much on what I, as an audience member, brought with me as anything that happened on stage.
But, first thing's first. The Spitfire Grill tells the story of Percy, a young woman recently released from prison who moves to Gilead, a small Midwestern town, to start her life over. She is not exactly welcomed into the tight-knit community with open arms, especially when she starts working at the town’s central hub—the Spitfire Grill. Hannah, the stoic proprietor of the cafe, takes Percy on against her better judgment: Hannah is tired of running the joint, and disappointed in her nephew Caleb’s failure to sell the place. So Percy and her co-worker Shelby (Caleb’s wife) devise a plan to raffle off the Spitfire Grill—a plan that, naturally, meets with considerable resistance.
Fred Alley and James Valcq’s book is good, and Alley’s lyrics are serviceable. Both are greatly enhanced, though, by Valcq’s gorgeous score, which is a pastiche of pop music Americana. The music broods and smiles along with the characters, and soars when they do, as well. One of the score’s two high points is “The Colors of Paradise,” Percy and Shelby’s duet in which their raffle plan is joyously born. The other is “Shine,” Percy’s second act solo in which she emerges from her guarded emotional cocoon and comes alive again. Both the music and Libby Winters’s performance lift the song to the cathartic heights it aspires to.
Overall, the cast is good, even if their skills are not always up to the task of fulfilling the demands of The Spitfire Grill. On their own, the singing voices are sometimes tentative and one-dimensional. But in the group numbers, they combine powerfully to great effect. Note also that I saw the company’s first performance, so they have time to polish their performances to a shine. In the meantime, they're making up for their shortcomings with all the fun they are having. Every actor seems happy to be doing this show, and it shows.
Timothy J. Amrhein’s set design brings The Spitfire Grill vividly to life. And the orchestra—conductor/pianist Marcus Baker, keyboardist John Kramer, and guitarist Craig Magnano—swings, swoons, and sways to perfection.
The whole enterprise reminded me fondly of the kind of summer stock shows I grew up watching and doing. Every element of The Spitfire Grill set off fierce waves of nostalgia and sentimentality inside of me, and I was magically transported back to the days when I first started out as an actor. (Not to mention that I was reminded why I wanted to be one in the first place: because it’s fun.) As I watched The Spitfire Grill, I was not only almost overwhelmed by tears, but my dreams of being in show business were renewed and invigorated. I felt as free as Percy does at the climax of “Shine.”
So, obviously, while the contributions of the company are crucial to the success of The Spitfire Grill, what I brought to my viewing of it was what led me to the epiphanies I experienced. Those who venture out to Brooklyn to see The Spitfire Grill will be won over by its charm and enthusiasm. And, for those who are lucky enough to have as strong a personal reaction to it as I did, you will be rewarded with a deep and enriching evening of theatre.