The Spitfire Grill, the warmly-received new musical version of the film of the same name, opens for preview business Sept. 7 at The Duke on 42nd in a staging by Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan.
Liz Callaway, Phyllis Somerville, Mary Gordon Murray and Garrett Long star in the New York premiere of the award-winning show, which had its premiere at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse in fall 2000. David Saint, who helmed the debut, again directs.
Official opening for the show by composer and co-librettist James Valcq and lyricist and co-librettist Fred Alley is Oct. 2. Playwrights Horizons, the nonprofit devoted to new voices, is using a handful of New York City spaces, including the 199-seat Duke, in the 2001-2002 season while its new home is being built on West 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 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. 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. Director David Saint is artistic director at George Street Playhouse.
Garrett 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 trying to start over, Percy, develop a friendship. The show is set in rural Wisconsin in "the recent past." The five musicians play keyboard, violin, cello, guitar, mandolin and accordian.
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."
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