• Theater Review: ‘Spitfire Grill’ a feel-good rural musical
    By Jim Lowe
     | April 05,2014
    Photo by Rob Strong

    Amanda Ryan Paige, left, is Percy and Marisa Devetta portrays Shelby in the Northern Stage production of “The Spitfire Grill.”

    WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Many Vermonters will remember the “The Spitfire Grill,” Lee David Zlotoff’s 1966 hit indie film partially filmed in Vermont using some Weston Playhouse actors. Well, there’s a musical version too — and while not quite as compelling as the movie, it’s plenty entertaining.

    Northern Stage opened an effervescent production of the musical this week at White River Junction’s Briggs Opera House. At Thursday’s preview performance, it proved largely well cast, stylish and entertaining.

    “The Spitfire Grill,” with music and book by James Valcq and lyrics and book by Fred Alley, was premiered by Playwrights Horizons off-Broadway at the Duke Theatre on Sept. 7, 2001, and ran its scheduled month. It received the Richard Rodgers Production Award, administered by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and has since been produced some 500 times worldwide by regional, community and student theaters.

    Percy, a 20-something woman, has just arrived in a tiny Wisconsin town, just released from five years in prison and looking for a new life. She is reluctantly taken under his wing by Sheriff Joe Sutter, who finds her a job and place to stay with Hannah Ferguson at her diner.

    After some sparring, Percy and Hannah begin to get along. When Hannah’s hip gives out, they are joined by Shelby, despite her husband Caleb’s objections. The three become friends — and agree to help Hannah rid herself of the grill.

    But there are complications, many complications — among others, the angry Caleb researches and reveals Percy’s sordid crime, and what is Hannah’s dark secret?

    “The Spitfire Grill,” the musical, is no masterpiece. The story is a bit complex for a musical, but the message is certainly there. The music is quite attractive in a sanitized bluegrass vein. It’s well written but overlong. How many songs do you want to hear about how wonderful it is living in a small town? (We know. We live in Vermont.)

    Still, the Northern Stage production benefited from the expert direction of Catherine Doherty, Northern Stage’s longtime producing director. The action was fast-paced, the music was spot-on. The acting, though sometimes a little formulaic, was pretty convincing.

    The main trio of women was particularly fine. Susan Fletcher was most authentic as Hannah, theatrically and vocally, giving this wonderful character real depth. An excellent singer, Amanda Ryan Paige’s Percy was quite dimensional and sympathetic. And Marisa Devetta as Shelby gave a potent performance as a stressed housewife, and proved quite a tender singer as well.

    Charis Leos, a Northern Stage veteran and expert comic actress, was most charming as the officious postmistress, Effy. Kevin David Thomas was warm and appropriately clumsy as the sheriff. Ben Sargent, despite stiffness and vocal troubles, was appropriately sullen as Caleb. Alan Gelfant was well cast as the mystery character.

    The music, directed by Joe Mercier, was expertly and effervescently performed. However, the individual miking of the actors and amplification of the totally hidden band gave a synthetic feel to the music.

    Jordan Janota’s evocative and imaginative set, appropriate costumes by Johanna Cahill and Meghan Pearson, and dramatic lighting by David Upton all contributed to the production’s polish.

    Northern Stage’s “The Spitfire Grill” is a charming feel-good experience for rural America.

    Northern Stage

    Northern Stage presents “The Spitfire Grill,” the James Valq-Fred Alley musical based on the hit film, April 2-May 4 at Briggs Opera House, Main Street in White River Junction. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sunday, plus 2 p.m. matinees on Thursdays. Tickets start at $23; call 296-7000, or go online to www.northernstage.org.

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