San Diego Theater Review: THE SPITFIRE GRILL (North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach)

by Tony Frankel on June 17, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

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GRILLED TO PERFECTION

North Coast Rep’s rendition of James Valcq and Fred Alley’s simple musical The Spitfire Grill demonstrates two things: the redemptive power of acceptance, forgiveness and love; and just how a magnificent company can turn a problematic piece into a powerhouse of a revival.

Released from prison, Percy (Aurora Florence) seeks a new life in Gilead, Wisconsin, a town fallen on hard times, or as Sheriff Joe (golden-throated Kevin Earley) puts it: “a place for leaving, not for coming to.” Despite the population’s initial hesitation, a mysterious newcomer is exactly what they need. Percy plucks the local fatalists from their prison of nostalgia and with some fresh perspectives the citizens of Gilead realize that home is where the hope is.

Due to Marty Burnett’s efficient set and Matthew Novotny’s deft use of lighting, the small stage seems twice as big. And in this intimate theater, all of the actors’ performances are grand, just as impressive as any on a Broadway stage. The casting is perfection. Ms. Florence adeptly conveys subtleties of her character through slight, almost imperceptible changes in facial expression and body language. Devlin plays an acerbic, yet sympathetic restaurant owner so well that I had trouble imagining the actress’s personality any different in the real world. And isn’t that the goal of the actor: to blur the line between reality and fantasy? The other cast members–Meghan Andrews, Kevin Bailey, Maggie Carney, and Matthew Thompson–are also perfectly suited to their characters.

Yet, at this Grill, the bacon sizzles but the songs, while tuneful, kind of fizzle. The main problem is that many aren’t utilized to define character: In the opening number, our heroine Percy spends a quarter of the time unnecessarily counting (yes, one, two, three) rather than hinting at her past or introducing her personality; the catchy country tune “Frying Pan” shows off Percy’s charming Southern twang, but it lacks character specificity (many people can’t cook, but why exactly can’t she?); and “Ice and Snow,” a song about transitioning from winter to spring, Valcq and Alley miss the opportunity to strengthen the show’s themes of death, rebirth, hope, and transformation—instead, Alley offers lyrics as deep as:

“If I could, I’d grow my hair
Sleep all winter like a bear”

Act I only skims the surface of the play’s conflicts, which leaves Act II free-falling into a lot of melodrama (a similar issue which hurt the 1996 film source). Yet even with libretto issues, director Jeffrey B. Moss balanced the two halves and sustained believability throughout–an amazing feat given the fairly predictable material (will the lonely small town sheriff fall for the pretty new girl despite her criminal history?). With one of the best-cast ensembles in memory, each with an amazing voice backed by Alby Potts’ equally amazing band, Moss ensures that The Spitfire Grill will please anyone who has a soft spot (or blind spot) for the overly dramatic. It’s essentially a Lifetime movie in musical form (which explains why this is one of the most produced musicals in America). Hey, you say, that doesn’t sound half bad. You know what, it really isn’t. In fact, with this production, the show is all good.

photos by Aaron Rumley

The Spitfire Grill
North Coast Rep
987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach
Wed at 7; Thurs-Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on June 25, 2017 EXTENDED to July 2, 2017
for tickets, call 858.481.1055 or visit North Coast Rep

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