Theater Review: Spitfire Grill

March 15, 2006 12:00 AM
“The Spitfire Grill” was one of many ensemble films to appear in the ’90s that featured a strong cast and a cafè as a nexus of maternal warmth and life-affirmation. Think of “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Baghdad Cafè,” both of which came earlier than Lee David Zlotoff’s 1996 film.
But something in the Alison Elliot and Ellen Burstyn vehicle cried out to creators James Valcq and Fred Alley, and in 2001, “The Spitfire Grill — The Musical” premiered.
The show opened in a post-9/11 America hungry for an extra helping of small-town Americana. Five years later, in its Santa Barbara debut at the Garvin Theater, does Spitfire Grill still offer the same pleasures?

“The Spitfire Grill,” directed by Rick Mokler, has only six singing roles (and a wordless seventh character), but it’s complex in its interchange of spoken word and song, backed by a powerful yet small ensemble.
The show starts off small, with Percy Talbott (Julie Anne Ruggieri) alone and in the spotlight. She’s just been released from prison and in her opening song “Ring Around the Moon” finds herself in a strange new world, alighting from a bus in the town of Gilead, Wis.
Meeting her is Sheriff Joe Sutter (Rod Lathim), who is to be her parole officer and who has helped set her up in a job as waitress at the Spitfire Grill.
The grill set, which dominates the rest of the evening, then appears, gliding onto stage in a bit of old theater magic. Congratulations to scenic designer Patricia L. Frank for a cafè set that feels believable despite its cutaway walls and forced perspective.
The coffee looks real, too.
The rousing “Something’s Cooking at the Spitfire Grill,” for the whole company, introduces us to the rest of the characters: salty owner Hannah Ferguson (Katie Thatcher), shy waitress Shelby (Holly Ferguson), her husband (and Hannah’s son) Caleb (Bill Egan), and town gossip and postmaster Effy (Margaret Prothero).
This is a town where everybody knows your business, and apart from Shelby, the townsfolk regard Percy warily.
We soon get to know Hannah — her son Eli went off to fight in Vietnam and went MIA, and since her husband died she’s been thinking of selling the cafè.
Percy and Shelby come up with the idea of a raffle: $100 and an essay earn contestants a chance at the keys to Spitfire’s front doors.
Though, as Hannah explains, once the quarry shut down and the freeway was built, nobody comes through Gilead that much.
The raffle, though it does end in one of the best numbers of the evening, the rousing Act One closer “Shoot the Moon,” is not really the core.
Percy’s acceptance into the town (and her ability to change the people within it) is the emotional center, with Shelby’s transformation from doormat to strong woman, and Hannah’s from crotchety to loving, both results of Percy’s intervention.
Yet Percy’s crime, the one that sent her away for 10 years, eats away at her and is revealed in Act Two, with Shelby’s “Wild Bird” and Percy’s “Shine” bringing the musical backbone to the tale.
It’s not too clear if “The Spitfire Grill” is about anything more than redemption and change, and on the page (as in the film), the character arcs are rather predictable.
It might be reaching to connect Percy’s violent crime to the Vietnam War (and the truth about Eli, which audiences might guess before the intermission), but both are traumas that are, we come to understand, being remembered incorrectly.
Both Percy and Hannah chose to live with the pain, but are unaware they don’t have to.
The cast is all in fine voice, and is even sweeter when harmonizing as in the Gilead-praising “The Colors of Paradise.”
Bill Egan’s Caleb is little more than the “mean husband” character, but is humanized with his solo number “Digging Stone.”
The two main problems in “The Spitfire Grill” are its essentials: story and music.
The dark ending of the film has been cheered up for the production, but also winds up folding its numerous plots into a quick, neat package and shunting them out of the way.
In regards to the Eli storyline, the effect is to mute what should be a much bigger emotional payoff.
Secondly, the music, played by a top-shelf collection of musicians (David Potter, piano/accordion; Anne Weger, keyboards; Richard Biaggini, violin; Jeness Johnson, cell; Ramon Fermin, guitar/mandolin; conducted by Mr. Potter) is a melting pot of Broadway, folk, and Appalachia.
Yet, there is a samey quality to the songs here. It sounds wonderful in the theater; on the drive home one might be hard pressed to remember any of it.

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