Liz Callaway, Phyllis Somerville, Mary Gordon Murray and Garrett Long will star in the New York premiere of the award-winning new musical, The Spitfire Grill, based on the film of the same name.
Playwrights Horizons stokes the coals of the tuner beginning with previews Sept. 7 and opening Oct. 2, at The Duke on 42nd Street. Performances continue to Oct. 14, although the affordably-sized seven-actor cast and the story's humanity are alluring to potential producers. Word of mouth about the show has been positive and a regional life, if not a commercial New York future, seems assured.
Drawn from the 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff, the musical has a book shared by lyricist Fred Alley and composer James Valcq. It was previously produced by George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, and was the recipient of the 2001 Richard Rodgers Production Award. The New York premiere production is bittersweet. Lyricist-librettist Alley died unexpectedly in Door County, WI, May 1, while jogging. He had a previously undiagnosed heart ailment.
Beyond Tony Award nominees Callaway (Baby, Miss Saigon) and Murray (Belle in the first Broadway revival of Little Me), the staging will feature Steven Pasquale (Chris in a Miss Saigon national tour), Armand Schultz (recreating his George Street role), Stephen Sinclair (TWEED's The Children's Hour) and Phyllis Somerville (Broadway's Over Here, Once in a Lifetime and History of American Film).
Garrett Long, playing Percy, the character who sparks the action, appeared regionally in Floyd Collins at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, and sang in the pre Broadway workshop of Thoroughly Modern Millie. David Saint, who directed at George Street, where he is artistic director, repeats his duties. Long plays Percy, a young woman with an uncertain past who becomes a resident in tiny Gilead, WI, where she's met with suspicion by the residents, who are haunted by a previous tragedies. The 1996 film was directed and written by Zlotoff, and disappointed some viewers who felt the ending was unnecessarily bleak.
Musical staging is by Luis Perez, who choreographed The Civil War on Broadway. Designers are Michael Anania (set), Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes), Howell Binkley (lighting) and Scott Stauffer (sound). Andrew Wilder is musical director. Orchestrations are by composer Valcq.
In New Jersey, performances of The Spitfire Grill began Nov. 25, 2000, with an opening Nov. 29. The title is the name of a restaurant, where the no-nonsense owner, Hannah (played in New Jersey by Beth Fowler, but now played by Somerville), and a former women's prison inmate, Percy, trying to start over, develop a friendship.
Spitfire composer Valcq and Alley have been friends since high school. They had collaborated once before on an American Folklore Theatre show called The Passage, about immigrants. Alley was co-founder and artist-in-residence of the popular AFT, in Door County, WI, which also launched his popular regional musicals Guys on Ice and Lumberjacks in Love (written with composer James Kaplan).
Of the "Spitfire" film, Alley previously told writer Simon Saltzman: "It had all the elements of a great folk tale with magical qualities and with strong archetypal characters."
Alley said he related to the rural people, having grown up in a small town not unlike that in the film. Although the movie is set in rural Maine, Valcq and Alley moved the action to Wisconsin, a landscape they know. It was the "mystical qualities" of the film and the "lyrical possibilities in the language" that Alley said instantly appealed to him.
In an Oct. 30, 2000 e-mail to Playbill On-Line during the New Jersey pre-production period, Alley wrote, "Composer James Valcq is going to be noticed. We've retooled the screenplay and found a musical."
Playwrights Horizons is the nonprofit Manhattan company devoted to giving voice to new works. While a new home in under construction, the troupe will present in various venues around the city, including the 199-seat Duke.
Tickets to The Spitfire Grill are $50. The Duke is at 229 W. 42nd St. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or visit the New Victory box office, a few doors down from The Duke, at 209 W. 42nd St. Find Playwrights Horizons website at www.playwrightshorizons.org.
— By Kenneth Jones