Sunday, September 7, 2008
The Spitfire Grill
When the lights came up on stage and the cast members were taking their bows, I wanted to shout, NO! THAT’S NOT THE ENDING. As any fan of the 1996 movie knows, Percy doesn’t end up the happy owner of a restaurant, with a fiancé, best friend and surrogate mother. She ends up dead.
I was shocked and highly disappointed that the creators of this musical version of the film, which up to that point I had really been enjoying, would conclude the show with a 1940s Hollywood movie ending. That is not what Lee David Zlotoff’s movie was about. The film developed a large following among people of faith because of its Christian themes of repentance, the need to forgive and transformation. These are watered down in the stage version, a revival of which opened last night at the Sage Theatre.
Both the movie and the play present the story of Percy Talbott, a woman in her early twenties who has just been released from prison, having served five years for murdering her stepfather. With no family to turn to, she takes off for a small Wisconsin town called Gillead because she saw a picture of it in a travel book and liked the name and all the surrounding trees. She gets a job at the Spitfire Grill, the only eatery in the depressed town, and is befriended by Shelby Thorpe, with whom she eventually shares some of the story of her sad life. Her father died when she was young, and her stepfather molested her, causing her to become pregnant when she was 16. In spite of the circumstances of its conception, she loved the baby that was growing in her. But her stepfather beat her until she lost the baby, and she was told she would never be able to have more children. One night, after her stepfather had abducted her from the hospital where she was recovering, he drove her to a motel and got drunk. She took his knife and stabbed him repeatedly.
Only Shelby knows this story, but over time Percy makes a place for herself in the town. One person in particular, though, doesn’t trust Percy. Caleb Thorpe, Shelby’s husband, is an angry, disillusioned man who is unwilling to allow Percy to have a second chance in his town.
In the musical, he comes around and all live happily ever after. In the movie, it takes Percy’s accidental death to save Caleb from the hatred that had been eating him up for years. In an extremely moving scene in the film, the townspeople are gathered in the local church for Percy’s funeral, talking about what they knew about her. Then Caleb, played perfectly by Will Patton, walks in and says, “I didn’t know Percy Talbott,” and he shares his regret for his hardheartedness.
It is not only dramatic, but it is a device central to classic literature -- the confession. He needs the forgiveness and acceptance he wouldn’t grant Percy. She is the Christ figure, the innocent who had to die for the “sins” of others. The “resurrection” of Caleb and the town comes in the form of a young single mother and her baby who have won ownership of the Grill in an essay writing contest. She presents the new life that Percy’s death set in motion.
Fans of the film, and they are legion, are unlikely to embrace the Easter Sunday of the play without the Good Friday of the movie. Which is a shame because the musical is strong up until the end. The songs -- music and book by James Valcq, lyrics and book by Fred Alley -- are winning, the performers were good, especially Celine Rosenthal as Percy and Annie Gane as Shelby, and the musicians were excellent -- Paul L. Johnson (musical director, piano), Rachel Kaufman (accordion), Mike Pettry (guitar), and Deborah Sepe (cello).
The Spitfire Grill received its world premiere at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse and opened Off-Broadway in 2001 at Playwrights Horizons. That production won the Richard Rodgers Production Award administered by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and received Best Musical nominations from the Outer Critics Circle and Drama League, as well as two Drama Desk nominations. The show has been produced more than 250 times across the United States, in Germany, South Korea and this past summer had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Now it’s playing a one-week engagement in a small second-story walkup theatre on Seventh Avenue, a pleasant space, but with a stronger ending the show could be having a run at a major Off-Broadway, or even Broadway, theatre. It’s got the potential. I hope the creators will send this promising musical back into workshop for an ending worthy of such a moving story.