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The North Carolina premiere of The Spitfire Grill, presented Aug. 12-28 by Raleigh Little Theatre, earned a rare (for RLT) standing ovation at the end of its Sunday matinee performance, Aug. 14th. This 2001 Off Broadway and Broadway musical, with music by James Valcq and book and lyrics by Fred Alley, is based on the award-winning 1996 movie written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff.
RLT diva Rose Martin was in fine voice and fine comic form as Hannah, the aging and sometimes grumpy proprietor of the intimate small-town grill and gathering place from which the movie and play take their titles. Staci Sabarsky was good as Percy, a young, prickly recent parolee with a terrible secret whom Hannah reluctantly employs to help out around the grill.
Brett Wilson was charming as Sheriff Joe Sutter. Assigned to supervise Percy’s parole, Joe overcame his initial reluctance and disdain for Percy as he began to see through her superficial surliness to the sensitive soul beneath the layers and layers of attitude.
Anne Butman provided welcome comic relief as Effie, the town’s super-snoopy postmistress who is strongly suspected of steaming open her fellow residents’ mail. Don Smith played Caleb, Hannah’s overprotective nephew and the nominal villain of the piece, with great feeling; Elanah Sykes provided the perfect dramatic foil as Shelby, the well-meaning, self-effacing wife who eventually learns to stand up to her bully of a husband; and Del Flack contributed a memorable cameo as The Visitor.
The savvy musical staging of RLT artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons and the exuberant accompaniment by musical directors Lori McLelland (piano) and Diane Petteway (piano and accordion), Corrine Christison (cello), Hollis Brown and Eric Grunstrom (violins), and Charles Newkirk and Bernie Petteway (guitars) helped The Spitfire Grill sizzle. Scenic designer Rick Young’s multilevel set -- with a splendidly detailed recreation of the first-floor of the grill, inside and outside, set on a turntable -- was a wonder at ground level, but some of the scenes set on the set’s upper level -- especially the chase through the woods --were not quite so compelling.
Lighting designer Roger Bridges did his usual fine job of illuminating the action, costume designer Vicki Olson dressed the cast in an impressive assortment of New England casual wear a la L.L. Bean, and sound designer Rick LaBach demonstrated his excellence yet again.
The Spitfire Grill, which is more melodrama than musical, has no songs with Top 40 potential. Indeed, the show uses its musical interludes more to express and elaborate its characters’ inner feelings than to entertain. But the story and the score still tug at the audience’s heartstrings, and the spirited Sunday afternoon performance brought the audience to its feet at the final curtain.
Raleigh Little Theatre presents The Spitfire Grill Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 17-20 and 24-27, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 21 and 28, at 3 p.m. in its Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $14 Wednesday, $17 Thursday/Sunday, and $19 Friday-Saturday evenings, except $12 Thursday evenings and Sunday matinees for students and seniors. 919/821-3111 or via etix at the presenter's site. Note 1: All performances are wheelchair accessible, and assistive listening devices are available for all shows. Note 2: The August 14th performance will be American Sign Language interpreted and audio described. Raleigh Little Theatre: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/spitfire.htm [inactive 4/06]. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117718/.
On Friday, Aug. 12th, Raleigh Little Theatre will present the North Carolina premiere of The Spitfire Grill by James Valcq (music) and by Fred Alley (book and lyrics). The 2001 Off Broadway and Broadway musical is based on the award-winning 1996 motion picture written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff.
RLT artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons, who will stage the show in RLT’s Cantey V. Sutton Theatre Aug. 12-28, says, “The film version of The Spitfire Grill gave viewers at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival a thrill that earned the film critical recognition, high praise, and the Audience Award. When writers James Valqc and Fred Alley transformed the screenplay into a musical for the stage, their script won accolades in the form of the Richard Rogers Production Award presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
“Basing their show on the screenplay by Lee David Zlotoff, Valqc and Alley reshaped the story into an intimate, character-driven musical,” claims Haskell Fitz-Simons. “The Spitfire Grill received its world premiere at The George Street Playhouse in New Jersey in the fall of 2000. Playwrights Horizons then moved the production to Broadway in September of 2001. It played only three performances before the shocking events that closed down much of New York theater on Sept. 11, 2001. The show managed to last four weeks longer in a city devastated by tragedy, but has since enjoyed numerous productions in regional theaters across the country.”
Fitz-Simons notes, “We discovered this wonderful small musical quite by chance during our play-reading process last year — when a title appears on enough seasons, it usually pays to investigate!”
He adds, “The music for Spitfire almost defies classification. The musical idiom has its roots in the American and Celtic folk traditions. There are really no conventional ‘show tunes’ in the score, but rather a number of beautiful songs and ballads interwoven with beautifully interwoven ensemble pieces. The orchestration is beautifully transparent with keyboard, violin, cello, accordion, guitar, and mandolin. Altogether rather a new and refreshing sound for a musical theater piece!
“The story is powerful and evocative and, perhaps understandably (considering its genesis), cinematic in flow,” Fitz-Simons says.
The long-time RLT artistic director adds, “I guess you probably know that I love musical theater in all of its forms. It is wonderful to have the opportunity to direct a play which is so very different from most in the genre!”
Fitz-Simons says, “The story is tough, yet touching. The Spitfire Grill focuses on relationships formed among the townsfolk and what happens as a result of a stranger, Perchance ‘Percy’ Talbot (Staci Sabarsky), coming into their midst.”
He adds, “The story is an honest account of an outsider who changes the lives of strangers through her actions. The central character is Percy, an ex-convict who decides to start a new life in ‘a place for leaving, not for coming to’ — Gilead, Wisconsin. The Spitfire Grill, a modern folk tale set in the fictional town of Gilead, gets its title from the town’s only café. Soon after Hannah (Rose Martin), the crusty old proprietor of the grill, grudgingly gives Percy a job at the Grill, she is injured and is forced to shift much of the grill’s operational responsibilities to Percy.
“Percy’s cooking leaves much to be desired,” Fitz-Simons notes, “and she receives help from Shelby (Elanah Sykes), the painfully shy wife of Hannah’s over-protective nephew, Caleb (Don Smith). After a time, Percy is courted quietly by Gilead’s Sheriff Joe Sutter (Brett Wilson). Town postmistress and busybody Effy Krayneck (Ann Butman) completes the cast.”
Fitz-Simons says, “By story’s end, both Percy and Hannah achieve healing and freedom from their respectively self-imposed imprisonments.”
In addition to director Haskell Fitz-Simons, the show’s production team includes musical directors Lori McLelland and Diane Petteway, set designer Rick Young, lighting designer Roger Bridges, costume designer Vicki Olson, and sound designer Rick LaBach.
Fitz-Simons notes that “The action takes place in and around the grill in Gilead, Wisconsin. The multilevel set is on a turn-table to facilitate the quick transition from one location to the next.”
He adds, “The lighting is evocative and moody, reflecting the dramatic change of seasons in the location.” Fitz-Simons says, “The play takes place in contemporary times in a small town in Wisconsin. The costumes reflect that as well as the change of seasons in that northern clime.”
Haskell Fitz-Simons emphasizes, “The Spitfire Grill, due to its cinematic flow, poses unique challenges to both scenic and costume designers. Passage of time can happen instantaneously, with scenes playing simultaneously in various locations in and around the eponymous grill. The musical style calls for a powerful ensemble of singing actors.”
Raleigh Little Theatre presents The Spitfire Grill Friday, Aug. 12-13, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 14, at 3 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 17-20 and 24-27, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 21 and 28, at 3 p.m. in its Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $14 Wednesday, $17 Thursday/Sunday, and $19 Friday-Saturday evenings, except $10 matinee Aug. 14th and $12 Thursday evenings and Sunday matinees for students and seniors. 919/821-3111 or via etix at the presenter's site. Note 1: All performances are wheelchair accessible, and assistive listening devices are available for all shows. Note 2: The August 14th performance will be American Sign Language interpreted and audio described. Raleigh Little Theatre: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/spitfire.htm [inactive 4/06]. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117718/.