Review: ‘The Spitfire Grill’

Rural church groups and high schools without the lederhosen budget for "Sound of Music" might warm to "The Spitfire Grill," a small-scale new musical by James Valcq and Fred Alley so innocuous it wouldn't offend the sensibilities of an Amish elder.

Rural church groups and high schools without the lederhosen budget for “Sound of Music” might warm to “The Spitfire Grill,” a small-scale new musical by James Valcq and Fred Alley so innocuous it wouldn’t offend the sensibilities of an Amish elder. The season opener at Playwrights Horizons, a company temporarily in residence at the Duke on 42nd Street while its home base is being renovated, “Spitfire Grill” is so doggedly warmhearted and uplifting it might work well as a litmus test — or a corrective — for post-traumatic New Yorkers, neatly dividing the temporarily emotional from the authentically sentimental.

The show is based on a 1996 movie written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff, but that will neither help nor hinder its fate. An extremely informal poll suggests that no one in the continental United States has actually seen the picture. Thus, the musical’s soporific effect can’t be blamed on the familiarity of the material; it is dull entirely in its own right.

The setting is “rural Wisconsin” — a hitherto untapped hotbed of musical theater possibilities. The heroine is Percy Talbott (Garrett Long), a goodhearted but tough young woman just out of prison who arrives in a town called Gilead (note significance) looking to make a new life for herself without causing no trouble to no one.

Local Sheriff Joe Sutter (Steven Pasquale), also Percy’s parole officer, arranges for a job, room and board at the diner that gives the show its title, under the stern but caring eye of the cantankerous proprietor, Hannah Ferguson (Phyllis Somerville).

The newcomer is soon the talk of the town, which is no wonder, as the population appears to number five: The musical’s cast of characters is completed by Hannah’s gruff nephew, Caleb Thorpe (Armand Schultz); Caleb’s mousy, put-upon wife, Shelby (Liz Callaway); and local snoop Effy Krayneck (Mary Gordon Murray). There’s also the mysterious stranger who haunts the woods, fed by bread that Hannah leaves on the back porch every night.

The excitement of life in Gilead may be suggested by the fact that even the bitchy busybody wears a sensible beige suit. In fact, as efficiently costumed by veteran Theoni V. Aldredge, everybody onstage seems to wear beige, the better to blend in with the simple, sturdy wooden set by Michael Anania and the score by Valcq (music) and Alley (lyrics), which also tends toward earth tones (at one point the cast joins to sing a song about the changing of the seasons: “Creek is melting/Sun breaks through/Fish for trout in a week or two …”).

The musical idiom is country-style folk, with songs alternating between mournful or uplifting guitar-based ballads and fiddle-happy comic romps. The John Denver-ish melodies are certainly pleasant and competently structured, as is the book by Valcq and Alley, but they hold nary a surprise. The characters are predictably typed, and every development among them — and there aren’t too many possibilities — can be seen gleaming from a ways off, as on “the mornin’ when the hickories turn golden,” to borrow one of Alley’s lyrics.

The reluctant Percy is soon being courted by the cute sheriff (the one available man onstage), for instance, while her plucky spirit gives a self-esteem boost to the borderline abused Shelby. The identity of the mysterious woodsman is no shocker, either, and the secret of Percy’s incarceration is firmly in keeping with her general saintliness — more discussed than demonstrated, truth be told.

The actors acquit themselves well without managing to bring much seasoning to the characters, and their strong voices do full justice to the countrified flavor of the score. But the musical’s endless hymns to the glories of quiet country life may ruffle the feathers of newly proud New Yorkers. A key plot point has Hannah planning to raffle off the grill, and duly receiving thousands of letters from the miserable, benighted folks trapped in the dehumanizing cities. (How Hannah funded a national advertising campaign is left unexplained.)

But for all its rapturous talk of Gilead as “a piece of heaven where the hummingbirds still hum and the colors of paradise come,” “Spitfire Grill” inspires nostalgia not for the changing leaves of Midwestern woods but the rough and tumble of city living. It’s so anodyne it makes the newly sanitized 42nd Street seem an appealingly nasty place.

The Spitfire Grill

Duke on 42nd Street; 196 seats; $50

Production

A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a musical in two acts with music and book by James Valcq and lyrics and book by Fred Alley, based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff. Directed by David Saint.

Creative

Musical staging, Luis Perez. Sets, Michael Anania; costumes, Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Scott Stauffer; musical director, Andrew Wilder; orchestrations, Valcq; music coordinator, John Miller; production stage manager, Thomas Clewell. Opened Oct. 2, 2001. Reviewed Sept. 26. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast

Percy Talbott - Garrett Long
Sheriff Joe Sutter - Steven Pasquale
Hannah Ferguson - Phyllis Somerville
Caleb Thorpe - Armand Schultz
Effy Krayneck - Mary Gordon Murray
Shelby Thorpe - Liz Callaway
The Visitor - Stephen Sinclair
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