Monday, June 5, 2017

“Spitfire Grill” lends folksy appeal in North Coast Rep’s production

North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana beach is presenting the “The Spitfire Grill” by James Valcq (book and music), Fred Alley (lyrics and book) based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff.  It plays through July 2nd.

The one and only time yours truly had seen this was when it was produced was in 2003 by Moonlight Stage Productions. It starred Alexander Auckland as Percy and Sandy Campbell as Shelby and was directed by Kathy Brombacher.  

The 1996 film, by Lee David Zlotoff, starred none other than Ellen Burstyn. In 2001 the stage production was nominated for Best Off-Broadway musical.

Billed as a folk rock musical, most if not all of the musical numbers will not sound familiar, (think country, bluegrass and pop) but since most of the musical story/play is sung (there are about 16 musical numbers in then score) the lyrics tell the story and  provide emotional insight.
Cast from L to R Maggie Carney, Devlin, Kevin Earley, Aurora Florence, Kevin Bailey, Meghan Andrews and Matt Thompson
The story takes place in Gilead, Wisconsin. 

A young female inmate, Percy (Aurora Florence) is released from prison and put to work as a waitress in the town’s only café, “The Spitfire Grill” owned and operated by Hannah Ferguson (Devlin). Hannah’s been trying to get rid of the grill for ten years with no takers. 

Percy chose Gilead because she found a picture in a travel guide magazine “Autumn Colors Along Copper Creek Near Gilead, Wisconsin” and liked what she saw in the picture. She’s originally from Appalachia and she’s surely not going back to the scene of her crime.

The Spitfire is like any other small town’s diner or grill. It is here where the locals gather (at least for breakfast) repeating all the gossip that’s fit to print, have their say and leave. The ‘grill’ is also part of the lodge where Hannah lives and now is home to Percy.

Aurora Florence and Maggie Carney
The town’s residents include Sheriff Joe Sutter (Kevin Earley), Hanna’s nephew, Caleb Thorp (Kevin Bailey), his wife, Shelby (Meghan Andrews) and the town crier and postmistress, Effy Krayneck (Maggie Carney).

 Seen in the still of the night is ‘a mystery man’.

The characters are pretty typical and realistic of small town folks, not necessarily a bad thing especially when we watch them develop into three-dimensional, real life folks right in front of our eyes.

As predictable as “Spitfire” is, director Jeffrey B. Moss and his excellent ensemble make the most of several plots that crisscross and intersect and make them feel plausible. Of course we’d like think, most lived happily ever after.

Percy and her partner in crime Shelby take over the grill’s running when Hannah’s hip gives out and she can no longer stand on her feet and after Shelby’s husband Caleb becomes abusive and overbearing.

Aurora Florence and Meghan Andrews
Shelby is on the wrong end of her husband’s frustration and anger since his job of quarry foreman ended when the quarry closed. Caleb’s disagreeable temperament (he belongs in the dark ages with his  ‘I have no ironed shirts to wear’ attitude) puts him in the not so much to like category as he carries a long time grudge. (“Digging Stone”)

Shelby and Percy become sisters in kind as they compliment each other in voice and comportment. (“The Colors of Paradise”) Theirs is a symbiotic relationship that is most evident and quite wonderful to watch. Ms Andrew's soprano voice is gorgeous.

Aurora Florence (a graduate of BYU’s musical theatre program), whose Percy turns a dying and dismal town around and brings hope to the local (albeit small) population is the thread that sets into motion the idea of raffling off the grill to the best essayist that can convince Percy, Hannah and Shelby that their reasoning is sincere. It’s the easiest way for Hannah to get rid of the grill. All it takes is an essay and a one hundred dollar bill.

Kevin Earley is the easy, lonesome and likeable Sheriff who shows an interest in Percy and it requires all he can muster to have her see the light of his affections. Her sorted past and prison time has put a damper on her future.

He and Percy do find each other after a series of non- starters bring them together. His tender tenor voice fits right in with the strong ensemble. His convincing and easy personality (“Forest for the Trees”,  “This Wide Woods” and “Ring Around The Moon”) fits the bill as a romantic interest

Aurora Florence and Kevin Earley
Maggie Carney brings comic relief and perfect timing as the ‘town crier’ spreading gossip as far as her telephone will carry it.

Devlin’s Hannah is perfect as the gruff, tough and long ago tired grill owner who has a secret she’s been carrying around for years. Her “Forgotten Lullaby” is beautiful and speaks volumes. Matt Thompson makes a late appearance as…well, no spoilers here.

Ms. Florence's acting and stage presence are more than convincing as she comes across at first as shy and vulnerable, but soon shows her strength as she pushes through and becomes the catalyst for all she sees as positive and caring.  She is definitely a find for San Diego. Her mezzo voice is powerful and her range broad. 

On the day I saw the show her voice sounded strained and the music overall discordant and loud, but I fell in love with several of the tunes and lyrics; in particular “Colors of Paradise” sung in beautiful harmony by Percy and Shelby.

Musical director Alby Potts is on keyboard. The four musicians accompanying the cast include Nikko Nobleza on guitar and mandolin, Catherine Gray on violin and George Spelvin on cello. They  were seen behind one of the scrims making up part of the set designed by Marty Burnett.

Covering the back wall of the playing area, a map of Wisconsin looms large thanks to Aaron Rumley’s projections. Matt Novotny designed the effective lighting, Elisa Benzoni the costumes, and Chad Lee Thymes the sound.

L. to R. Meghan Andrews, Kevin Earlry, Aurora Florence, Maggie Carney and Devlin

Overall the poignant message of forgiveness, nurturing and hope is compelling with an almost spiritual feel that sets in. After all is said and done, one is left with a warm uplifting message and for some, teary eyes.

For something different with lots of down home wisdom you won’t want to miss “Spitfire Grill”.  

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through July 2nd.
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 858.481.1055
Production Type: Musical
Where: 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, CA
Ticket Prices: $46.00-$52.00
Venue: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Photo: Aaron Rumley


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