Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Spitfire Grill"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


music and book by James Valcq
lyrics and book by Fred Alley
based on the film “The Spitfire Grill” by Lee David Zlotoff
directed by Spiro Veloudos
musical direction by Jonathan Goldberg

Percy Talbott … Elizabeth Hayes
Sheriff Joe Sutter … Christopher Chew
Hannah Ferguson … Bobbie Steinbach
Effy Krayneck … Cheryl McMahon
Caleb Thorpe … Derek Stearns
Shelby Thorpe … Maryann Zschau
The Visitor … Floyd Richardson

Conductor/Keyboards … Jonathan Goldberg
Violin … Stanley Silverman
Cello … Catherine Stephan
Guitar/Mandolin … Bill Buonocore

(Drum roll, please.) Ladies and Gentlemen: Elizabeth Hayes. Thrice I have seen this attractive, friendly singer-actress in Boston Theatre Works productions: in MACBETH, her Witch slithered and writhed about in babydolls; in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, her Iras huddled with Charmian amidst the cushions and leopard skins. But, in between, Ms. Hayes caught fire as the delightful lead in MOLLY’S DREAM; to this day I swear she grew curves when her waitress donned a top hat. Ms. Hayes has now debuted at the Lyric Stage as another lead/waitress in the musical adaptation of the film THE SPITFIRE GRILL where she not only catches fire once again but is positively ablaze and Spiro Veloudos is to be commended for drawing her into his Equity-based production; thus, new talents are born when given a chance. You’ll remember Ms. Hayes long after THE SPITFIRE GRILL has faded from memory --- say, in a few hours.

James Valcq and Fred Alley have retained much of the film’s plot: Percy Talbott, a young woman with a prison record comes to live in the small town of Gilead, Maine; she has chosen this particular town after seeing photos of the town’s foliage in autumn --- she arrives, ill-timed, in February. Gilead’s citizens, led by Caleb Thorpe the town bully, are suspicious of Percy who is taken in by Caleb’s old aunt, Hannah Ferguson, the owner of the Spitfire Grill. Hannah has wanted to sell the Grill for years; at Percy’s suggestion, filtered through Shelby, Caleb’s cowed wife, Hannah offers the Grill in a nationwide raffle; money and hope soon come pouring into Gilead. As the winter softens into spring, so do the townspeople towards Percy save for Caleb who seeks to expose her. Percy’s past, hinted at throughout, is finally revealed --- she killed her stepfather who had raped and impregnated her, then caused her to miscarry --- and Percy, in turn, unintentionally unlocks a secret in Hannah’s heart, amazingly well-hidden from this town of busybodies. Messrs. Valcq and Alley have scaled the cast list down to Percy and six other characters, switched the locale from Maine to Wisconsin, combined Percy’s suitor and her parole officer into one man and have served up a whole new ending (the film’s climax would have required a Greek messenger to report the offstage catastrophe) --- audience members may walk out happily comforted but Lee David Zlotoff, the film’s creator, had woven a parable of sacrifice and redemption; to remove the former is to diffuse the latter. His charming, modest little film might have made a charming, modest little drama; in contrast, Messrs. Valcq and Alley’s show is hard-edged from their musicalizing material that did not cry out for musicalization. In short, they have made extroverts out of Mr. Zlotoff’s stubborn introverts and anthem-heavy ones, to boot (when their Hannah grumbles about why did the new highway pass Gilead by, I grumbled, in turn, “Because the town is too damned NOISY --- that’s why!”). As a result, the musical SPITFIRE GRILL plays like the film’s trailer with all of its key scenes punched up and coming at you as sound bites. There are some pleasant melodies that start to thicken into songs and then just as suddenly evaporate; other numbers, such as Caleb’s rant that ends with “Maybe I ain’t a man at all”, simply lie there. The score’s sound, though, could mark the beginning of a new musical trend: THE LAST FIVE YEARS, over at the SpeakEasy, draws its soul from its cello; here, the emphasis is on violin and guitar which gives the piece a nice, folksy flavor --- beautifully suited for underscoring, especially when raffle letters are being read aloud --- perhaps today’s musicals are now turning away from thumpa-thumpa rock and towards more flowing, personal orchestration --- if their creators can only wean themselves from those loud, sustained notes that turns a performer into a rooted funnel of sound; Percy’s soaring Act Two “Shine”, would have been far more effective had she not hit the ground in Act One, already belting. (Fortunately, Percy only speaks, not sings, about her murder; had she done otherwise, the lyrics might have been along the lines of “Got raped by my stepdaddy / In a sordid hotel bed / While he slept, I got his razor / And I cut ‘im till he bleddddddd / Now, he’s deadddddddDDDDDDD! DEADDDDDDDDDDD!” etc.)

But back to Ms. Hayes. Her two Percys (singing and speaking) never really come together: when Ms. Hayes sings, she is all smiling, spunky radiance; when she speaks, she is closer to the film’s withdrawn, feral jailbird. Still, Ms. Hayes is so engaging that I didn’t mind her giving me two shows in one --- her dual performance covers all the bases and is one hell of an audition; as I mentioned above, you’ll remember her. Ms. Hayes is supported by a reliable clutch of Lyric regulars: it was nice to see Maryann Zschau substitute much of her brass for clear, sweet spring water; as welcome as Bobbi Steinbach always is, it would be equally as nice to see her playing something other than various salts of the earth. Christopher Chew, ever in good voice, is far more compelling as staring-eyed villains and shams than as sensitive souls, and Floyd Richardson is touchingly right-on as the mute Visitor; I kept expecting him to sing or, at least, to dance out his feelings but that would have been pushing the extrovert button a bit too often, yes?

"The Spitfire Grill" (13 February-13 March)
140 Clarendon Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 437-7172

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