The Spitfire Grill, the humane, folky new musical version of the film of the same name, opens 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 are 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 directs the audience favorite. Previews began Sept. 7.
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.
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. Michael Anania's rustic plankboard set and Howell Binkley's lighting suggest multiple locations, from the woods, to a prison to the rustic cafe of the title. Performances continue to Oct. 14, although the affordably-sized seven actor cast and the story's humanity are alluring to potential producers. 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, 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) as timid Shelby and Murray (Belle in the first Broadway revival of Little Me) as the town gossip, the staging also features 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 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.
Musical staging is by Luis Perez, who choreographed The Civil War on Broadway. Designers include Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes)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 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 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."
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"
Tickets to The Spitfire Grill are $50. The Duke is at 229 W. 42nd St. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200. Visit the Playwrights Horizons website at www.playwrightshorizons.org.
— By Kenneth Jones