Uplifting story, soaring music are on the menu in ‘The Spitfire Grill’

spitfire grill montclair

SPOTLIGHTS PHOTOGRAPHY

From left, Sabrina Cabrera, Virginia Woodruff and Gina Milo co-star in “The Spitfire Grill” at the Vanguard Theater in Montclair.

Gilead may not sound like much of a town name. But as sung — softly, tenderly — by cast members of the musical “The Spitfire Grill,” currently being presented at The Vanguard Theater in Montclair, it takes on a magical quality. Like Camelot does in the musical of that name.

“The Spitfire Grill” (book by James Valcq and Fred Alley, music by Valcq, lyrics by Alley) is, indeed, a magical story, and it benefits from a marvelous score. Nearly every song has a memorable melody, and all the cast members here (more precisely, the six of the seven who do all the singing) deliver them flawlessly.

This is an uplifting tale of female bonding, personal empowerment and small-town grit. It’s sentimental, to be sure, but also grounded in reality — some of the characters do suffer, mightily.

The Vanguard Theater Company’s founding artistic director Janeece Freeman Clark directs, while also handling the show’s small-town-diner scenic design. Like everything I’ve seen at this theater since the company began presenting shows there last year, the production seemed both thoroughly professional and performed with the type of passion that can’t be faked.

SPOTLIGHTS PHOTOGRAPHY

From left, Virginia Woodruff, Sabrina Cabrera, Zack Abbey and Gina Milo in “The Spitfire Grill.”

Sabrina Cabrera plays the central character, Percy, a young city woman (from Detroit) who travels to Gilead, Wis., after a five-year prison sentence, to start her life over. All she knows about the town is that its fall leaves looked nice in a photo she came across in a book, while in prison.

Gilead, it turns out, is enduring hard times after the recent closing of the quarry where many of its residents worked. With the help of the local sheriff (and her parole officer), Joe (Zack Abbey), Percy lands a job as a waitress at the Spitfire Grill. The only restaurant in town, it is owned by the cranky Hannah (Virginia Woodruff) and patronized daily by locals such as Joe; Joe’s friend Caleb, who is struggling to make ends meet as a realtor after his quarry job vanished; Caleb’s meek wife Shelby (Gina Milo); and local postmistress and gossip queen Effy (Julie Galorenzo, who is responsible for much of the play’s comic relief, and is consistently hilarious).

After Hannah falls and breaks her leg, Percy volunteers to help out in the kitchen, and Hannah reluctantly agrees. Shelby offers her help, too. Things are rocky at first — Percy never cooked anything more complicated than a TV dinner before, and Caleb doesn’t want Shelby to work. But Percy learns her way around the kitchen, and Shelby stands up for herself. And together, they eventually cook up something besides food: A plot to help Hannah off, financially. They’ll sell $100 tickets for a contest, with the winner receiving ownership of the diner itself (which Hannah has been trying to sell for years). Entrants have to write an essay saying why they want it; the best one will win.

Improbably — but predictably — the contest is wildly successful. Aggressive marketing helps. Percy sings, in sketching out the contest’s sales pitch:

SPOTLIGHTS PHOTOGRAPHY

Clockwise from top left, Gina Milo, Virginia Woodruff and Sabrina Cabrera in “The Spitfire Grill.”

Did you ever want to lose yourself
And wander where you please?
Well, you can walk 100 miles
And never leave the trees …
And when summer turns to autumn
In the town where you are from
Then the colors of paradise come.

Less predictable is a series of melodramatic twists in the second act. Too many, probably: Some of them would have benefited from a little more build-up. It is a very real flaw, though easy to ignore when the music is so gorgeous and the performances so assured.

“The Spitfire Grill” is based on the 1996 film of the same name. It debuted at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick — with a change of setting, from Maine to Wisconsin, and a major overhaul of the ending — in 2000, and was produced off-Broadway in 2001.

Since then, it has continued to be produced frequently, all over the country and overseas as well — often, no doubt, by small theater companies such as Vanguard, whose staff members can surely relate to the musical’s messages about the value of hard work, perseverance, and hope.

Remaining performances of “The Spitfire Grill” at The Vanguard Theater in Montclair will take place Nov. 17-19 at 8 p.m., Nov. 19 at 2 p.m., and Nov. 20 at 3 p.m. Visit vanguardtheatercompany.org.

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One thought on “Uplifting story, soaring music are on the menu in ‘The Spitfire Grill’

  1. This was basically community theater with much better voices. Granted that the piece itself is mediocre to begin with, and good material is the foundation of anything. Starting with the good: the singing with a few exceptions was excellent. The woman playing Percy definitely has a set of pipes and the sheriff could sing the phonebook and make it sound amazing. I left after the first act but almost stayed just to hear him do his solo. He’s got a good career ahead of him. Beyond that, the actress playing Shelby was the standout. Solid all around as an actress and singer. You see her credits and it shows. Next would, once again, would be the sheriff. Charming, handled his scenes well. These two get the high marks. Now for the not so positive: While Percy can sing great, this part is well beyond her comprehension. the guy who played Caleb also doesn’t undertand the role, not to say that it would be much better even if he did. He’s dramatically flat. In fact, with few exceptions, this is one of the principal flaws. He has a few really nice notes in his higher register, and you can tell the guy has spent a lot of time in lessons and coaching, but you expect more from union people with some cool credits. However, the turkey award goes to Hannah. She was the weakest thing in this show. The irony is that her resume is the most distinctive. Forget that she is a terrible actress, she can’t sing either! How the heck did she get those B’way jobs????? Was it a character choice to “sound” older? It’s a musical, honey. SING!

    With all of this said, I think some fault need go to the director. it’s obvious that this was a hurry up and learn your material kind of show. Actors were left to their own devices to figure out what to do beyond what’s on the page, so maybe the fault is not entirely theirs. The staging is unimaginative and, in some cases, lacking anything organic. The interludes where the group are outside in the cold were basically, come downstage, face front sing and leave. All form and no substance: sounded great, but what the hell is going on???? Make it make sense! Terrible. I know the space is small, but do something interesting and make it work.

    I find it odd that a theater who does mostly musicals is in a space that is not set up for that. A small black box with no room for live musicians? thankfully the singers were strong and overcame the canned tracks and, in some cases, really nailed it. A case in point would be Shelby and Percy’s duet. That rocked.

    Sorry. Call me tough but when I see a theater that is supposed to be professonial and boasts some of the performers with which they’re linked, I expect more. It’s called musical THEATER. If you can’t create that part, just do concerts or musical reviews. You’ve obviously got the singers.

    Jay Lustig is being kind because he wants to help a small theater with valuable missions of diversity and inclusion and youth outreach. I get it. But he should stick to writing rock critiques.

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