The Spitfire Grill, the audience-favorite folk musical that had its New York City premiere at Playwrights Horizons, will have its Midwest premiere at Milwaukee's Skylight Opera Theatre in 2002, and the show is expected to be published for licensing in the coming year.
Skylight is the theatre where Milwaukee native and Spitfire composer James Valcq began performing on stage at the age of seven (in Berg's Wozzeck) before becoming a musical director and a composer there. Artistic director Richard Carsey and Valcq told Playbill On-Line the humane, folky musical written with the late lyricist and co-librettist Fred Alley will play Skylight in the 2002-2003 season.
Valcq said a publishing deal is also in the works and the possibility of a cast album is being explored. Audiences recognizing Valcq at the theatre during The Spitfire Grill's Manhattan run always came up to him with the same question: "Where can we get the cast album?"
"Clearly, there's an audience for it, and a market for it," Valcq later told Playbill On-Line. "Fred and I were dubious about whether the show would ever open in New York. We had hoped that it would, but we would not have been surprised if it never did. In a way, the entire Playwrights production was a gift. We always assumed that the show would have a huge regional life."
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 the musical. It ran at The Duke on 42nd Street in a staging produced by Playwrights Horizons Sept. 7-Oct. 14. *
Composer and co-librettist Valcq and collaborator 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.
The small cast (seven actors), uncomplicated set and small band make the show attractive to potential future producers, including non-profit regional artistic directors whose audiences are hungry for musicals that will fit within a troupe's budget and venue.
Skylight's Carsey, who already knew the material from knowing Alley and Valcq, attended one of the final Playwrights Horizons performances as was surrounded by people uniquely touched by the show. Liz Callaway's stirring Act One story song, "When Hope Goes," about the profound spiritual loss in the town, had theatregoers in tears and will likely be recognized as the jewel in the score. Word of mouth about the show has been positive and a major 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 was 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) as timid Shelby and Murray (Belle in the first Broadway revival of Little Me) as the town gossip, the staging also featured Somerville (Broadway's Over Here, Once in a Lifetime and History of American Film), Steven Pasquale (Chris in a Miss Saigon national tour and the recent square-dance instructor of HBO's "Six Feet Under"), Armand Schultz (recreating his George Street role as Caleb, nephew to Somerville's Hannah and husband to Callaway's Shelby), Stephen Sinclair (TWEED's The Children's Hour) playing a strange visitor and newcomer 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.
Long's Percy was 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.
Musical staging was by Luis Perez, who choreographed The Civil War on Broadway. Designers included Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes) and Scott Stauffer (sound). Andrew Wilder was 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 now played 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." Give musicians sit in a stage-left loft, unseen.
Spitfire composer Valcq and Alley were 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."
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"
Visit the Playwrights Horizons website at www.playwrightshorizons.org.
— By Kenneth Jones