The Spitfire Grill, book by Fred Alley and James Valcq, music by Valcq, lyrics by Alley, based on a film script by Lee David Zlotoff; directed by Igor Goldin.
"Better than being born with six toes, and a cowlick"
Allen E. Phelps, Megan Rozak and Marci Bing
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
It's been an interesting week. I attended the first preview of Jean Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon in the new space owned and operated by Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield and heard the song A Ring Around the Moon which opens the latest efforts across the near hills in New Lebanon, The Spitfire Grill.
A 1996 movie, The Spitfire Grill, created and produced by the Sacred Heart League, Inc., a Catholic nonprofit fund raising and communications organization based in Walls, Mississippi, serves as the inspiration for a musical of the same name, now playing on the stage of the Theatre Barn in New Lebanon, New York.The film starred Alison Elliott as Percy Talbott, Ellen Burstyn as Hannah Ferguson, Marcia Gay Harden as Shelby Goddard, Will Patton as Nahum Goddard, Kieran Mulroney as Joe Sperling, Gailard Sartain as Sheriff Gary Walsh, John M. Jackson as Johnny B./Eli, and Louise De Cormier as Effy Katshaw. The film went on to win the coveted Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, was distributed world-wide and due to the redemptive nature of the story, the film is often used by retreat groups and other spiritual groups as a basis for discussion about themes of redemption, hope, Christian service, and forgiveness. It became a musical in 2001, but because of the devastating nature of the autumn of that year, it did not become an immediate success in New York.
Apparently it’s been produced often since, however, and the Theatre Barn is presenting its regional premiere. Written by James Valcq (music) and Fred Alley (lyrics) the show has pared down the story and changed a few elements, not for the better.One major character is eliminated, or actually merged with another, and another is reduced to a silent walk-on and his problem is altered from shell-shocked veteran to army deserter. These things make an enormous difference and, in the casse of the second major shift, not easily explained. It leaves holes in the plot and an embarrassing sense of "cop-out" in the writing. It would seem that shell-shocked isn’t musical enough, but desertion might be. I don’t think so.
There’s an excellent cast of players in New Lebanon. McKenna Miller plays Percy and Marci Bing is Hannah. Megan Rozak portrays Shelby Thorpe (name change) and Allen E. Phelps is her husband Caleb (total name change). Eric Richardson plays Sheriff Joe Sutter, a composite character, Effy Krayneck (name change again) is played by Jerielle Morwitz and Keith Hines plays The Visitor (Johnny B./Eli). The setting has shifted from Maine to Wisconsin for some reason, although the character names, especially Caleb, has a New England sound to it. With one exception, Phelps, they all deliver one hundred percent in their roles. Phelps role is the dark one, the nay-sayer, the doubter, the suspicious, jealous, almost violent husband and it’s a tough part to play engagingly. But the must be engaging, after all he sings and his solo piece, "Digging Stone," sets us up for the emotional tragedy of his life, coming in the second act. He is also the stagehand who turns the center stage turntable and the lighting designer who does a very good job, except for the intrusive star drop during Percy’s song, "Shine."
Goldin has done a nice job moving his cast among the trees and around the Grill located on the turntable. He has found moments for each of them and let them interpret the kind of music that almost moves the location again to the hills of West Virginia. It all has that kind of hokey sound to it. A fiddle, played poorly by Trevor Depew, twangs out the melodies in quarter-tone irritation, while the almost-there piano thumping of Jeremy Fenn-Smith helps to create a cacaphony of sound on far too many occasions. The costumes could use a little bit of perking up, especially Percy’s. By the end of the play a year has passed and she’s stll in the first thing we saw her wear. Working in this greasy spoon, she must be quite redolent by the end of the play, able to be found in the woods she sings about in the dark using only your nose. At some point these people living in a small and depressed former quarry town must wash and change their clothes. They must!
It’s a very predictable show, sad to say. The plot makes the outcome clear, especially if you go to musicals as frequently as I do. The music could use a little help, a touch of Meredith Willson perhaps, with a modulation every few minutes, a key change, a harmonic in the vocals. There needs to be something to catch our interest and hold it.
At one point, late in Act Two, Effy describes something as "better than being born with six toes and a cowlick." This show is better than that, mostly due to the quality of the performers, but not a whole lot better after all is said and done.
◊ 08-11-06 ◊
The Theater Barn is located at 654 Route 20 in New Lebanon, New York, just half a mile west of the Routes 20 and 22 (south) intersection. The shows generally play two weekends and the week between and tickets can be had by calling the box office at 518-794-8989. For more information go to their website at www.theaterbarn.com.