Hot off the griddle

The Spitfire Grill

Book by Fred Alley & James Valcq
Music by James Valcq, lyrics by Fred Alley
Directed by M.R. Goodley
Gallery Players
199 14th St., Brooklyn (between 4th and 5th Aves; 718/595-0547;
Equity showcase (closes Jan. 30)
Review by Elias Stimac

The Gallery Players are on a roll this season, with impressive recent productions of Hair and Side Man. Their streak continues with The Spitfire Grill, a musical version of the 1996 feature film by Lee David Zlotoff, starring Ellen Burstyn and Marcia Gay Harden.

Playwrights Horizons in NYC produced the New York premiere of the show in 2001, and now it's back in a modest yet moving presentation at the Gallery. The action takes place in the very small town of Gilead, Wisconsin, where a young woman named Percy comes to start a new life. Fresh out of prison, she meets with her parole officer, Sheriff Joe Sutter, who takes her to the only place where she might find employment -- the titular restaurant. Run by tough-as-nails Hannah Ferguson, the diner becomes a refuge for the girl and a symbol of hope. Percy slowly befriends the woman and the townspeople while inspiring them to turn their lives around.

The script, by Fred Alley and James Valcq, captures the down-home ambiance of a small town, and their lyrics and music are just as unassuming and appealing. A series of plot twists keep the story from becoming too saccharine and predictable.

M.R. Goodley guided the production with a sensitive eye, keeping the relationships real and the confrontations emotional. Musical director and pianist Marcus Baker along with John Kramer on synthesizer and Craig Magnano (alternating with John Blaylock) on guitar delivered the country-flavored score with ease.

Libby Winters as Percy was not the most endearing protagonist at first, but her defensive demeanor melted in comic and touching turns. Goodley's ensemble was so good that the ensemble piece was full of standouts. Bettina Sheppard made a sturdy Hannah, Eric Hanson was her brooding son, and Tina Marie Casamento her unappreciated daughter-in-law. As the Sheriff, Paul Martin Kovac displayed a friendly but authoritative presence, and Jaye Maynard was comically abrasive as the snoopy postmistress. Patrick Toon made a series of shadowy appearances as a vagrant with a secret.

Finally, a superior technical design brought the production to life, including Timothy J. Amrhein's set, Kathleen Leary's costumes, and Todd M. Reemtsma's lighting.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2005 Elias Stimac