Stage production of ‘Spitfire Grill’ a tonic for our times

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By ROBERT HAGELSTEIN
Blogger at lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
Jan. 19, 2019

It takes a feel-good musical/drama such as “The Spitfire Grill” to soothe in today’s world. This show still works wonders now as it did when it first ran Off Broadway in the shadow of the 9/11 tragedy. This is Palm Beach Dramaworks’ first musical to be produced as part of its regular subscription season, opening Feb. 1 and running through Feb. 24.

“Many subscribers asked us about the possibility of including a musical as part of our regular season, and we quickly warmed to the idea,” says Producing Artistic Director William Hayes. “The Spitfire Grill seems like the perfect choice with its complex characters, powerful themes, and a really appealing score.”

It is an uplifting show by James Valcq (book and music) and Fred Alley (book and lyrics) about starting over and second chances. Percy Talbott is a young parolee looking for a fresh start in Gilead, Wisc., a fictional town that one of its inhabitants calls “a place for leaving, not for coming to.” As Percy gradually adjusts to her new life, she and the town begin to awaken together.

Bruce Linser directs the show and Joshua Lubben is the musical director. The drama and the music are closely intertwined. In fact, Linser and Lubben agree that the show – although having folk and country musical roots – is very Sondeimesque, characters departing from dialogue into song and not missing a beat.

“The cast is terrific and they’re not afraid to reveal their own deep-felt emotions, says Linser. “Its essence is forgiveness and redemption. By working through their suffering, the characters’ dreams come true. It’s a profoundly universal human tale. “

The music is provided by the Lubben Brothers who were such a smash hit in last year’s production of Woody Guthrie’s “American Song.” This time around Katie Lubben joins in. 

“Although folk music is the basis, it’s not a genre; it’s simply a departure point for telling a story,” explains Joshua Lubben. “I intend to make the score organic and introduce a bass which will give it a bluegrass feel and allow the cast to delve into the darker places, although, essentially, this culminates as a feel-good musical.”

Interestingly, the show has a feminist focus though the men, too, are working through their issues of self-forgiveness and redemption. It is the women who bond.

Ashley Rose plays Percy in her Dramaworks debut. One of her more memorable roles, and very germane to “Spitfire Grill,” was playing the lead in “Always … Patsy Cline.” 

“Percy was from West Virginia and Patsy was from Virginia, and I think some of the voice of Percy comes from Patsy, with a southern, folksy quality,” says Rose. “Percy is a wounded character, falling into a dark place, and finding the light in Gilead. I’ve always wanted to play Percy – it was on my bucket list for years. Vocally she lives where I love to live.”

Percy befriends Shelby, played by Amy Miller Brennan. “Shelby has a kind heart,” says Brennan, “and she and Percy are kindred spirits. My character finds her voice through Percy. She’s an observer and I love her stillness and journey of self discovery. She gets up when beaten down.”

At the heart of this musical drama is the Spitfire Grill owned by Hannah Ferguson, played by the versatile veteran of countless Dramaworks productions, Elizabeth Dimon. She, like Percy, has a secret to protect. 

“I admire Hannah,” Dimon says, “as she doesn’t suffer fools gladly yet is central to the theme of women healing and bonding. While there is a folk feel to the music, it just erupts from the dialogue, making it challenging and integral. The ballads are exquisite.”

Rounding out the cast is Patti Gardner, Johnbarry Green, David A. Hyland and Blake Price. Scenic and lighting design is by Paul Black, costume design by Brian O’Keefe and sound design is by Brad Pawlak.

“The Spitfire Grill” runs from Feb. 1 through Feb. 24. Palm Beach Dramaworks is at 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.

Pictured above: From left, Blake Price, Elizabeth Dimon and Patti Gardner star in “The Spitfire Grill ” by James Valcq and Fred Alley, based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff. The production runs Feb. 1-24 at Palm Beach Dramaworks in downtown West Palm Beach. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll 

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