The Spitfire Grill
Music and Book by James Valcq
Lyrics and Book by Fred Alley
Based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff
Based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff, The Spitfire Grill depicts the journey of a young woman just released from prison who decides to start her life anew in a rural Wisconsin town. She precipitates a journey within the town itself toward its own tenuous reawakening. A collaboration between James Valcq and AFT cofounder Fred Alley (who previously collaborated on 1994’s The Passage), The Spitfire Grill won the Richard Rodgers Production Award, administered by The American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
DAMIEN JACQUES – September, 2002
Home-state audience embraces musical “Spitfire Grill“
A theme of redemption, with a catchy score
Seldom has the Skylight Opera Theatre had as much emotional capital riding on a show as it did for the opening of “The Spitfire Grill” on Friday night.
Favorite son James Valcq, who made his Skylight performing debut before he was old enough to join the Boy Scouts, is the New York-based composer of the musical. Beloved Door County writer and performer Fred Alley, responsible for a slew of American Folklore Theatre hits, wrote the lyrics and collaborated with Valcq on the book before he died in May 2001.
The musical won the prestigious Academy of Arts and Letters 2001 Richard Rodgers Production Award, with Stephen Sondheim as one of the judges, and “Spitfire” enjoyed a successful off-Broadway run last fall. Now it was coming home in a new production to be seen by audiences from Valcq and Alley’s native state. What would we think?
There is no ambiguity in the show or the opening night reaction. “The Spitfire Grill” is a charming and engaging musical that embraces its audience. It chooses heart over glitz, warmth over irony, simplicity over sophistication.
The superbly cast Skylight production, mounted in collaboration with the American Folklore Theatre, gives the show the outstanding local staging it deserves.
With a catchy, extremely listenable score, “Spitfire” is that musical theater rarity, a character study.
Valcq and Alley used the 1996 movie of the same name as the basis for their stage musical. A moody, rural independent film written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff, it told the story of an insecure young woman attempting to get a life after being released from prison. She chooses to move to Gilead, a small, woodsy town where she is a complete stranger.
A photo of the town in its autumnal colors had caught Percy Talbott’s eye while she was paging through a travel magazine in prison. In the movie, Gilead is in Maine; in the musical, Valcq and Alley moved it to southwestern Wisconsin.
Waitressing at the town’s sole restaurant, the Spitfire Grill, is the only job available, and the diner’s cantankerous owner, an elderly woman named Hannah, reluctantly hires Percy. It’s far from a perfect fit, and the townfolk’s skepticism about a stranger, especially one who has ben to prison, stacks the deck against the young woman.
The creative process for Alley and Valcq on this project began with the former writing the lyics and the latter using them as the staring points for composing each song. That, no doubt, is why this “Spitfire Grill” has Alley’s heart written all over it.
Redemption, healing, the loneliness of the outsider – those who knew the sensitive and compassionate Alley would recognize those themes as close to his heart. Perhaps that is why “Spitfire” avoids being saccharine and feels genuine.
The homespun approach Alley and his American Folklore Theatre colleagues took with so many of that company’s hits in Door County is reflected in “Spitfire’s” straightforward, look-you-in-the-eye theatrical style.
You can get a good idea of Valcq’s score by simply peeking in the Cabot Theatre’s orchestra pit and taking note of the instruments being played. Violin, cello, guitar, mandolin, accordion and keyboard. There is an overall rustic and rural style to the music, with some tunes getting a touch of country, some a bit of folk, and others having more of a Broadway show tune sound.
The musical’s plot is not completely faithful to the film’s screenplay. Valcq and Alley lightened the darkness a bit, removed some of the melodrama, and noticeably changed the ending. They wisely resisted the temptation to tie up all of the story’s pieces too neatly.
Playing a local woman who offers Percy a sheltering friendship, Elizabeth Moliter is a shining force of warmth and kindness. Kate Wetherhead, whose portrayal of Percy is utterly believable and emotionally shaded, and Moliter both have big-time musical theater singing voices.
Phyllis Somerville defines the term flinty in her portrait of Percy’s boss, and Patricia Durante disappears into an amusing caricature with her portrayal of the town postmistress and gossip. William Theisen directed.
Green Bay Press Gazette
Spitfire Performance salutes Alley’s genius
Fish Creek- At times in The Spitfire Grill, the leading women bask in beautiful songs they’ve got to work with in the hope-filled musical.
They touch the sky – the vision created by composer James Valcq and lyricist Fred Alley.
Kate Wetherhead stars as Percy, a former convict searching for a place that will give her freedom. Wetherhead’s voice is crystalline. Her acting is sensitive.
Phyllis Somerville plays the weathered owner of the Spitfire Grill in dot-on-the-map Gilead in southwestern Wisconsin. Somerville adds sagacity in her role and in the knowing song, “Forgotten Lullaby.”
Elizabeth Molitor plays a townie who befriends Percy, almost sacrificing her marriage along the way. Her “Wild Bird” caps an emotion-packed scene that Wetherhead sets up with a chilling story.
Altogether, The Spitfire Grill is a handsomely realized production. Songs such as “The Colors of Paradise” and “This Wide Woods” tug heartstrings. “Out of the Frying Pan,” with Percy desperately trying to cook, is comic fun.
A concert version of The Spitfire Grill was performed in Door Community Auditorium in 2001 before the award-winning show played in New York City. This version is the full one, with Door County’s American Folklore Theatre producing it in collaboration with Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera Theatre.
This production reveals the full sophistication of the music. Alley was a singer who knew the potential of the human voice. This show demands high-quality singing. The cast richly responds, though Robert Boles as the husband is a bit less on than others.
One tricky song, “Ice and Snow” calls on Boles, Christopher Chew as the young sheriff, and Patricia Durante as the town gossip to not only team-sing, but use such things as a snow shovel, ax grinder and tire chains as musical instruments.
Stage director William Theisen and music director Logan Brown tune in on the authors’ ability to blend music with deep feeling. The show is lyrical – verbally picturesque.
The story has holes, nut emotion mostly plugs these gaps.
Performances Friday and Saturday night were sold out. Friday’s closed to big cheers. Most in the audience knew the full background saga of this show. Alley died after The Spitfire Grill won the $100,000 Richard Rodgers Award that fostered its New York production.
“It was born of one of us,” Jeffrey Herbst, artistic director of American Folklore Theatre, told the opening night audience.
Alley lived in Door County and, with Green Bay native Frederick Heide, founded the creative American Folklore Theatre.
Alley worked “tirelessly and effortlessly” in writing eight musicals, Herbst said.
The Spitfire Grill completes the Alley circle. Now all of his shows have been performed in the Door County he loved and drew inspiration from.
‘Spitfire’ musical back home in full form
By Warren Gerds, Theatre Critic Green Bay Press Gazette
This is a musical with a lot of stories. The main one is on stage: A woman with a checkered past breathes new life into the small (and fictional) Wisconsin town of Gilead.
Songs are happy and sad: “Something’s Cooking at the Spitfire Grill,” “The Colors of Paradise,” “Forgotten Lullaby,” “Come Alive Again” and “Wild Bird” among them.
A couple of Wisconsin guys wrote the show and found glory with the first production in New Jersey. A big award brought about an Off-Broadway run in New York City.
Before the show went to New York, a concert version got an emotional sendoff at Door Community Auditorium. Now it’s back in full form, after a run in Milwaukee.
The cast has changed somewhat, with Brooklyn-based actress Kate Wetherhead in the leading role. She’s Percy Talbot, who was attracted to Gilead from fall-color pictures she saw of the town in a travel magazine while in prison.
The story is from a 1996 movie of the same name. Composer James Valcq and lyricist Fred Alley teamed to retell it in musical form. They had collaborated before in a show at American Folklore Theatre.
This one has been mostly well-received everywhere it’s played. It also has had some tremendous highs and lows.
• It wins the Richard Rodgers Award. Alley dies shortly before he and Valcq are to receive it from Stephen Sondheim.
• The Off-Broadway production opens. Soon, New York theater is struck with the devastating blow of Sept. 11, 2001.
In Milwaukee last month, the show was a hot ticket. Valcq is from there.
Friday, The Spitfire Grill returns to Alley’s territory in Door County. With others, he wrote such regional hits as Guys on Ice and The Bachelors.