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.
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:
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.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.