Composer James Valcq is heading into the recording studio the week of Dec. 17 to preserve the fall Playwrights Horizons production of his musical, The Spitfire Grill, for a cast album.
The independent disc will have a limited release "directly through the auspices of Playwrights Horizons" and "perhaps in some stores" before a hoped-for wider distribution, Valcq told Playbill On-Line.The recording is made possible by Playwrights Horizons, which opened its 2001-2002 season with the folky and sentimental musical about a misfit who comes to a small town in Wisconsin and changes her life — and the lives of the emotionally closed people there. The stage show is based on the film of the same name, and has lyrics by the late Fred Alley, who died earlier this year from a heart ailment. Valcq and Alley co-wrote the book.
Valcq told Playbill On-Line that he hopes the disc will be completed in the coming weeks and released in early 2002. "I am producing this thing myself, with a lot of kind help from Playwrights," Valcq said. "They've been very supportive and are behind this album all the way."
Beyond the score, which audiences embraced, one of the selling points of the album is Liz Callaway, known for her theatre-music album, concert appearances and work in Broadway's Baby and Miss Saigon. She plays Shelby, an oppressed wife who is invigorated by the presence of newcomer Percy (played by newcomer Garrett Long).
* The Spitfire Grill opened Off-Broadway Oct. 2 at The Duke on 42nd in a staging by Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan. Liz Callaway, Phyllis Somerville, Mary Gordon Murray and Garrett Long were the female stars in the New York premiere of the award-winning show, which had its world premiere at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse in fall 2000. David Saint, who helmed the debut, again directed, but with a slightly different cast. Previews began Sept. 7.
Beyond Tony Award nominees Callaway as timid Shelby and Murray as the town gossip, the staging also featured Somerville (Broadway's Over Here, Once in a Lifetime and History of American Film) as Hannah, the grill's gruff owner; Steven Pasquale (Chris in a Miss Saigon, HBO's "Six Feet Under") as the local cop; Armand Schultz, recreating his George Street role as Caleb, nephew to Somerville's Hannah and husband to Callaway's Shelby); and Stephen Sinclair (TWEED's The Children's Hour) playing a strange visitor; and Garrett Long, playing Percy, the character who sparks the action.
Long appeared regionally in Floyd Collins at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, and sang in the pre-Broadway workshop of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Director David Saint is artistic director at George Street Playhouse.
Composer and co-librettist James Valcq and lyricist and co-librettist Fred Alley created a score filled with folk-style songs that help conjure the rural Wisconsin world of the show, where the fall leaves are considered "The Colors of Paradise" and an outsider who moves to the small town of Gilead, WI, is likened to a "Wild Bird." As in the folk tradition, the score references such ideas as hope, home, the past and connection to the land and nature — with keyboard, guitar, mandolin, violin, cello and accordion as accompaniment.
Performances continued to Oct. 14, although the affordably-sized seven- actor cast and the story's humanity are alluring to potential regional producers. Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee announced during the New York run that it will give the show its Midwest premiere in fall 2002.
Liz Callaway's stirring Act One story song, "When Hope Goes," about the profound spiritual loss in the town, had preview audiences in tears and will likely be recognized as the jewel in the score. Word of mouth about the show has been positive and a regional life seems assured.
Drawn from the 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff, the musical was the recipient of the 2001 Richard Rodgers Production Award. The New York premiere production is bittersweet. The 38-year-old lyricist librettist Alley died unexpectedly in Door County, WI, May 1, while jogging. He had a previously undiagnosed heart ailment.
Long's Percy is a young woman with a criminal 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. The film's ending has been changed for the musical.
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."
Musical staging was by Luis Perez, who choreographed The Civil War on Broadway. Designers were Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes)and Scott Stauffer (sound). Andrew Wilder was the off Broadway 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 no-nonsense eatery owner, Hannah (played in New Jersey by Beth Fowler, but played for PH by Somerville) reluctantly gives a job to mysterious Percy (who picked Gilead because she saw a picture of an autumn-kissed creek in a travel magazine). The show is set in "the recent past." Five musicians sat in a stage-left loft, unseen.
Spitfire composer Valcq and Alley had 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.
According to the opening week Playbill, musical numbers in the score include:
"A Ring Around the Moon"
"Something's Cooking at the Spitfire Grill"
"Out of the Frying Pan"
"When Hope Goes"
"Ice and Snow"
"The Colors of Paradise"
"This Wide Woods"
"Shoot the Moon"
"Come Alive Again"
"Forest For the Trees"
"Way Back Home"
For tickets, call (212) 239-6200. Visit the Playwrights Horizons website at www.playwrightshorizons.org.
— By Kenneth Jones