The second of two film-related theatrical productions running in the North Bay is Sonoma Arts Live’s The Spitfire Grill whose tale from screen to stage is fraught with high expectations, financial disappointment, critical recognition, the worst of timing and, finally, success.
Financed by a Catholic non-profit organization that wished to produce a film that matched Judeo-Christian values with good storytelling, the story of a young woman trying to start over after a stint in prison was quickly shot in 1995 and submitted to the Sundance Film Festival where it was a huge audience hit. A Hollywood production company won the distribution rights with a 10-million-dollar bid, the most ever paid for an independent film to that date. It was released in 1996 to lackluster reviews and middling box office.
In 1999, James Valcq and Fred Alley thought the film was a good basis for a folk musical and began to develop it with workshops at the George Street Theatre in New Jersey and Playwrights Horizon in New York. Sadly, Valcq passed away right before the New York workshop. The show opened on September 7, 2001 – four days before the 9/11 attacks. A show that focused on the power of forgiveness may have seemed out of step for that time and, despite glowing reviews, it closed shortly thereafter. But the show must go on, and it has to the tune of over 500 productions around the world including its current incarnation at the Sonoma Community Center.
The Spitfire Grill is located in Gilead, Wisconsin, a town that’s seen way better days where parolee Percy Talbott (Sarah Griner) has decided to start over and settle based on a page torn from a travel magazine. She’s met by Sheriff Joe Sutter (Albert McLeod) who connects her with Hannah Ferguson (Suzi Gilbert), the cantankerous proprietress of the Grill. Small towns being what they are, postmistress and town blabbermouth Effy Krayneck (Karen Pinomaki) soon has the locals abuzz about the new stranger in town. Circumstances lead to Percy being put in charge of the Grill, which is a problem for Hannah’s nephew Caleb (Rusty Thompson). It becomes an even bigger problem for Caleb when his wife Shelby (Heather Buck) is also enlisted to help. Things really hit the fan when Hannah, who’s been looking to unload the diner and some unpleasant memories attached to it, decides to run with the idea that Percy suggests to raffle it off in an essay contest. Further complicating things are Sheriff Joe’s growing feelings for Percy, and Percy’s interaction with a local hermit (Sam Starr). And yet the town seems to have undergone a rebirth since Percy’s arrival.
Director Michael Ross has cast some excellent singers in this production, from seasoned musical theatre veterans to relative newcomers to the local stage. Sarah Griner certainly has the vocal chops to carry the lead singing responsibility as Percy, but I found her dramatic work a bit lacking. Her character seemed underdeveloped and only really came alive when she sang, leading me to wonder just what it was in Percy that Sheriff Joe found so easy with which to fall in love. In his first substantial stage role as Sheriff Joe, Albert McLeod shows great promise. He has a terrific singing voice that when combined with additional acting training and development could find him in high demand for romantic lead roles. As Hannah, veteran performer Suzi Gilbert takes command of every scene she’s in, which befits her character and her years of performing experience. Scene-stealer Karen Pinomaki does exactly that as the town busybody. Rusty Thompson has the character of Hannah’s small-minded, over-protective nephew down, but he struggled somewhat with the vocal work. The standout performance was delivered by Heather Buck who, through both superlative character and vocal work, lets us see in her Shelby the very real possibility that unless things change in her life, she may end up in the place from which Percy arrived – and she knows it.
It was a pleasure to listen to the charming and emotive bluegrass/folk/country-style score, which was well delivered by musical director Sherrill Peterson and her five-piece, heavy-on-the-strings band. Set designer Bill Kaufmann, with an assist from lighting designer Courtney Johnson, has managed to turn the small Andrews Hall stage into a prison, a diner and a Wisconsin forest without making it seem too crowded.
There’s a lot going on in The Spitfire Grill from beginning to end (and, by the way, the ending is significantly different from the film’s) and director Ross does a pretty good job of handling it all, though the show struggles with pacing issues inherent in the casual, folksy manner of much of the music. The musical style’s often unhurried, easy-going tone combined with the need for substantial exposition contributed to the feeling of a sluggish first act. As they often do, things picked up substantially in Act II.
The Spitfire Grill is a small musical with a big heart and the Sonoma Arts Live production has its heart in the right place. With its themes of forgiveness and redemption in mind, pardon its flaws and allow it to atone for them with its spirit, its soul, and its rooted-in-Americana score, delivered liltingly. At its core, it’s a very sweet show.
The Spitfire Grill
Presented by Sonoma Arts Live
through September 24
Thurs – Sat @ 7:30pm, Sun @ 2pm
Sonoma Community Center
276 E Napa St
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-4626 ext 1
Photos by Miller Oberlin