Music lifts superb ‘Spitfire Grill’ to sublimity

By Matthew Yde / For The Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In 1999, James Valcq and Fred Alley began adapting the popular 1996 movie “The Spitfire Grill” into a musical. As it happened, this touching drama with music opened in New York shortly after the 2001 terror attacks, and it proved just the medicine the grieving city needed.

Although it has now been over 15 years since those attacks, a feeling of disorientation and unease still clings to many Americans. Perhaps that is why Mother Road decided to relaunch its incredible theater company with “The Spitfire Grill,” which is directed with consummate skill and artistry by artistic director Julia Thudium.

“The Spitfire Grill” tells the story of Percy, a young woman recently released from prison who travels to Gilead, Wis., hoping to start a new life. She chooses this idyllic rural setting after seeing a photo in a travel book highlighting the gorgeous colors of autumn along Copper Creek. Percy gets a job in the town’s only diner and, not surprisingly, is viewed with suspicion by many in this small town, including the diner’s owner, Hannah. Things take a turn for the better when Hannah hurts her leg and the compassionate Percy steps up to run the diner. Although she can’t cook, she gets help from one of the locals, Shelby.

 Alaina Warren Zachary as Hannah, Amy Bourque as Percy, Kelsey Ann O'Keefe as Shelby

Alaina Warren Zachary as Hannah, Amy Bourque as Percy, Kelsey Ann O'Keefe as Shelby

What makes this particular production so successful is the excellent acting, especially among the women. As Percy, Amy Bourque invests her character with quiet dignity and hidden depths. The pain she carries is especially poignant in her beautiful second act solo, “Shine.” Bourque is a subtle actress whose every slight gesture and glance carries meaning. Alaina Warren Zachary is fabulous as Hannah, a bitter and lonely woman who finds redemption through the grace that comes when Percy enters her life. Kelsey Ann O’Keefe is wonderful as Shelby, a real friend to Percy when she needs one most. I have not yet mentioned Effy, the town gossip, played with expert comic instinct by Jen Stephenson.

 Vic Browder as The Stranger, Amy Bourque as Percy

Vic Browder as The Stranger, Amy Bourque as Percy

But what lifts this show to sublimity is the quintet, led by music director Lina Ramos. Set designer Vic Browder’s gorgeous set includes keeping the band visible backstage left behind a pair of elegant transparent screens. During “Shine,” lighting designer Tim Wilkins – whose lighting design is superb throughout – lit the stage-left side of the back screen with a gorgeous gold that bathes the quintet.

Ramos conducts with an intensity that is an integral part of the show; in fact, you can see her bring her musicians to a stop right before an actor speaks or, conversely, bring her musicians back in at a critical moment in the show. The musicians, conductor and actors are thus performing together with great precision and feeling. Valcq’s music is gorgeous, especially as rendered by the talented band of violin, cello, guitar/mandolin, piano and accordion. By and large, the singers do not match the musicians in musical talent, but their honest, heartfelt performances more than make up for any deficiency in singing ability.

Mother Road is an Albuquerque treasure. The production values of its shows are impeccable, but more important than that – it invests its shows with irrepressible heart and soul, something we should never undervalue.

“The Spitfire Grill” is playing through April 23 at the Keshet Center for the Arts, 4121 Cutler NE. For reservations and showtimes, go to motherroad.org or call 243-0596.

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Talkin' Broadway Review by Sheridan Kay Johnson

Spitfire Grill is a touching new musical being brought to life this month, by director Julia Thudium of Mother Road, at the Keshet Center for the Arts.  Magical and meaningful, the play is a diamond in the rough. 

The story of the Spitfire Grill first appeared as a 1996 Sundance Audience Award winning film.  In 2001, the prestigious Playwrights Horizon Theatre of New York turned it into an Off-Broadway play. 

 Kelsey Ann O'Keefe as Shelby, Amy Bourque as Percy

Kelsey Ann O'Keefe as Shelby, Amy Bourque as Percy

The play centers around Percy, played with unceremonious grit by the beautiful Amy Bourque.  She is a young woman recently released from prison into anonymous, small town America.  As Percy navigates the town, the audience gets to meet a smattering of characters—a gossip, a veteran, a wife, and a cop to name a few—as they struggle through their own lives and let the details in piece by piece.  

One of the most refreshing parts of the Spitfire Grill is that it is so familiar.  Since the recent election, we’ve been so focused on the things that divide our country.  Spitfire is a snapshot of an America that doesn’t care who you voted for.  It’s an America that remembers where it comes from but hasn’t decided where it wants to go yet.  It’s an American Dream play that doesn’t feature waving flags or floats—just friends you haven’t met yet with stories they haven’t finished yet.  

The music of the play (musical direction excellently done by Lina Ramos) is twangy and heartfelt, solidly grounding the play in Americana culture.  The live band is phenomenal, and creates an enveloping sound that swings between warmth and excitement with ease.  

 Alaina Warren Zachary as Hannah, Kelsey Ann O'Keefe as Shelby, Amy Bourque as Percy

Alaina Warren Zachary as Hannah, Kelsey Ann O'Keefe as Shelby, Amy Bourque as Percy

In many ways, the play itself is like a singing love-child of Mystic Pizza and Our Town.  As such, Spitfire Grill relies heavily on the comedic timing and earnest lovability of its actors.  Alaina Warren Zachary shines as the hilariously gruff owner of the grill.  Kelsey Ann O’Keefe provides the innocence and beauty that we love to believe in.  O’Keefe’s sincere and angelic tones are perfect.  Joined with Amy Bourque, the three harmonize their voices and their characters joyously.  Combine that with Jen Stephenson’s truthful and hilarious portrayal of the persistently uninvited Effy, and you have a winning combination of on-stage talent.  

The world of the play is completed by lighting designer Timothy Wilkens and set designer Vic Browder whose backlit, half-built farm silhouettes remind us all the work that is to be done, and the strong foundation that stands in all of us despite the pasts we may bring to the table or the challenges in our paths. 

Spitfire Grill runs through April 23 with performances every Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets available at www.motherroad.org

 

 

 

 

ABQ Journal Preview Article:

‘Spitfire Grill’ a warm tale of search for home

By Kathaleen Roberts / Journal Staff Writer

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017 at 12:01am

 

Amy Bourque is Percy, Alaina Warren Zachary plays Hannah, and Kelsey Ann O'Keefe is Shelby in "The Spitfire Grill."

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sometimes, redemption comes in the form of a small-town cafe.

 

In 1996, “The Spitfire Grill” told the story of a young woman newly released from prison who goes to work in a tiny restaurant. The film won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival.

In 2001, a stage musical debuted off-Broadway just days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Its recurring theme of the search for home drove at least one New York critic to tears.

The Mother Road Theatre Company production opens at Keshet Center for the Arts on Thursday, April 6. Director Julia Thudium says the story still resonates in a world gone mad.

“It’s that sense of finding community and finding your place in the world that’s so amazing to me as opposed to anger at what’s going on in the world,” she said.

A feisty parolee named Percy follows her dreams, based on a page from an old travel book, to a small town in Wisconsin called Gilead. She works at the ramshackle Spitfire Grill, owned by a crusty old widow named Hannah. Hannah has listed the grill for sale for 10 years, with no takers. Percy suggests a $100 raffle with an essay contest asking entrants explaining why they want the business.

“She ends up changing things for the better,” Thudium said. “They were selling hope. The responses to the raffle were overwhelmingly, ‘I want to be connected to the community.’ ”

“The Spitfire Grill” stars Amy Bourque, Chris Gonzales, Kelsey Ann O’Keefe, Vic Browder and Jen Stephenson. Five musicians will accompany them on violin, cello, keyboard, mandolin, guitar and accordion.

If you go
WHAT: “The Spitfire Grill”
WHEN: Preview 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 6; 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 7 and Saturday, April 8; 2 p.m. April 9; Repeats through April 23
WHERE: Keshet Center for the Arts, 4121 Cutler NE
HOW MUCH: $24 general, $18 students/seniors/military with ID

All Thursday Tickets $15 at motherroad.org