By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Upon seeing the 1996 movie “The Spitfire Grill,” musical theater pals and collaborators James Valcq and Fred Alley wasted little time musicalizing writer-director Lee David Zlotoff’s film for the stage.
The only significant difference between stage show and source film is that the Wisconsin natives transplanted the story’s location from Maine to their home state.
Laguna Playhouse jumped on the chance to secure the 2000 show for its 2002 season and were rewarded with record-breaking attendance.
While the company’s new edition might not surpass any benchmarks, it deserves to be lauded on numerous fronts.
Director Steve Steiner and musical director Glen Rovinelli have a firm grip on the story’s plot strands and a compassionate view of its characters. All seven cast members are superb. And the design work – scenic (Chris Strangfeld), lighting (Clifford Spurlock) and sound (Ian Wehrle) – meets the high standards Playhouse patrons always expect.
While the term “feel good” could be applied to “The Spitfire Grill,” the musical depicts thorny emotional issues and uses darker elements, not treacly sentiment, to lift our spirits, a technique and tone that suit the mood of the times.
Newly released from prison, Percy Talbott (Julia Hoffmann) hopes she can start anew in the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin. Her drab room upstairs from the Spitfire Grill, though, only reminds her of her prison cell. Worse yet is the gossipy nature of life in Gilead, its residents bored and in search of anything to distract them from their empty lives.
Hannah (Missy McArdle) provides Percy not just a room but also a job at the Spitfire Grill. She initially views Percy as “a smart-mouth girl fresh out of jail,” while town gossip Effy (Sarah Godwin) calls her “little miss white trash.”
When Hannah breaks an ankle, she calls upon her best cook, Shelby (Anneliese Moon), to run the café, finding she must also lean on Percy to keep things running.
For years, Hannah has been itching to sell the restaurant, but no one wants a run-down café in a depressed hamlet. Percy’s scheme to free Hannah of the place while raising funds triggers a flood of notes and letters from afar that gush with syrupy sentiment. As plot devices go, the contest is a contrivance, which is about the worst you can say about “The Spitfire Grill.”
Sheriff Joe Sutter (Noah Berry) sees his view of Percy shift dramatically from just another loser of an ex-con to someone extraordinary, and “Spitfire” traces the growing emotional connection between them. After Percy confesses the bleakness of her childhood in a coal-mining burg, Joe relates his views of life in Gilead, a succession of worthless, wasted days he can’t wait to leave behind.
The play gradually reveals that the outwardly no-nonsense, cynical Hannah is still mourning the loss of son Eli, reported as MIA while serving in Vietnam. His disappearance became a double loss when it triggered her husband’s premature death.
Hannah’s younger son Caleb (Alex Canty) resents being forced to live in the shadow of Eli’s memory. The story puts him in an unsympathetic light: He pressures wife Shelby to quit working at the grill so she can stay at home, an effort that includes digging into Percy’s unseemly past.
The story’s wild card is a character known only as “The Visitor” (Grant Alexander Brown) who haunts the town. Reticent of interacting with anyone, he’s like a self-protective wild animal eking out survival.
Steiner’s staging showcases the acting and vocal talents of his outstanding, uniformly solid cast. Percy’s killing of her stepdad and prison term have done a number on her – big-time – and while delivering plaintive, soulful vocals, Hoffmann portrays her as world-weary, years older than her chronological age.
Moon’s kind, goodhearted Shelby is the sugary yin to Percy’s seasoned yang. It makes for a pleasing combination, with Moon deftly keeping her portrayal from being overly sweet.
McArdle’s spiky Hannah is like an older version of Percy, making their growing bond believable. Beery’s Joe credibly evolves from merely being Percy’s parole officer to someone with a renewed outlook who wants to connect with her and make a life together.
Canty expertly delineates Caleb’s disillusionment and roiling emotions. Goodwin’s Effy is inquisitive bordering on rudely snoopy, and Brown is suitably enigmatic in a role that winds up figuring crucially into the plot.
Musically, the first handful of numbers are standard issue Broadway musical soft rock, but starting with Shelby’s heartfelt ballad “When Hope Goes,” filled with longing, the songs turn darker and more lyrical and soul-searching.
This tone is maintained throughout, and thankfully, the sense of renewed joy that blooms in Act Two isn’t overplayed and doesn’t feel forced. The songs and Valcq’s score enhance and expand upon the story’s themes, and Alley’s lyrics are, for the most part, inventive, yet never self-consciously clever.
Steiner’s staging captures the rustic flavor of Gilead, along with its small-town ambiance. The band instruments are cannily positioned on both sides of the stage, flanking the action. Two keyboards augment what is essentially a string-oriented score brimming with guitar (acoustic and electric), violin, cello, banjo and bass music.
In Rovinelli’s hands, the string-heavy orchestrations underscore the delicate emotional nature permeating the show. The actors are all musicians, too, giving Steiner and Rovinelli enviable levels of flexibility.
In lesser hands, “The Spitfire Grill” would have been too sappy and too hackneyed to bear. The focus and scope of the story are tight, and we never get the sense that the authors are overreaching or trying to do too much.
There’s nothing hugely ambitious or earth-shaking about “The Spitfire Grill.” Still and all, it’s a satisfying look at life in a battered small town and at its residents’ hardscrabble existence and the concomitant struggle to keep from giving up.
Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Running through February 13. Run time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: $51 to $81. Ticket purchase/information: (949) 497-2787, www.lagunaplayhouse.org.