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Civic’s musical ‘Grill’ carries substance if not a lot of sizzle

Fri., March 19, 2010

‘The Spitfire Grill” is a musical – and a beloved one at that – but it’s hardly of the Lloyd Webber blockbuster mega-musical variety.

It’s based on the kind of quiet, soulful indie film that wins audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival. In fact, the 1996 indie film “The Spitfire Grill,” did win the Sundance audience award.

Former high school music-camp pals James Valcq and Fred Alley saw that movie in 1999 and immediately saw its potential as a folk-country musical for the stage.

Now, the Spokane Civic Theatre will present the musical version of “The Spitfire Grill” in its cozy downstairs space, the Firth Chew Studio Theatre.

The story has a rural, populist heartwarming appeal. It’s about a young woman, Percy, who gets out of prison and decides to start a new life in a small town in Wisconsin. She gets a job in a diner and befriends the cantankerous widow who owns it. The widow wants to sell, but there are no takers. So Percy concocts a plan to raffle off the diner.

The result, according to the show’s original off-Broadway reviews, is a quiet triumph.

Here’s what the famously crusty critic John Simon said in New York magazine: “It is not often that material moves me to tears, but this was one of those occasions. ‘The Spitfire Grill’ has the heart and soul that your ‘Producers’ and ‘Full Montys’ cannot begin to approach. What even in normal times would be a joy is, in these troubled times, sheer nourishment.”

Simon called it the best musical of 2001.

Alvin Klein of the New York Times gushed about the multi-dimensional characters and compelling plot. USA Today said it has an “abundance of warmth, spirit and goodwill.”

The music was also widely praised. Ben Brantley of the New York Times said the songs are “shiny with tunefulness, hope and all-American inflections of country and folk.”

The show was an off-Broadway hit and has now become a popular choice for regional theaters and college theaters. In 2009 alone, the show had more than 40 productions across the U.S. This will be the first in Spokane; an earlier production was announced by the now-defunct CenterStage, but failed to materialize.

The Civic’s production will be directed by Marianne McLaughlin with music direction by Janet Robel. A trio of piano, cello and guitar/mandolin will provide the accompaniment.

Manuela Peters plays Percy and Judi Pratt plays Hannah, the widow. The rest of the cast includes Liberty Harris, Aaron Waltmann, Brian Gunn, Sallie Christensen and Bryan D. Durbin.

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