I’m not Jewish, or much of anything else for that matter. Most days I’m satisfied with simply doing my best to be a good person. There’s plenty that needs doing in the here and now, so musings on an afterlife feel a luxury at best.
Still, I pause each year to really reflect on the meaning of a Jewish holiday called Yom Kippur, also known as the “Day of Atonement.” It’s right up there with Thanksgiving for me because forgiveness and gratitude are so essential to everyday life.
I hadn’t realized, when making plans to see Phoenix Theatre’s opening night performance of a lesser-known musical called “The Spitfire Grill,” that the themes of gratitude and forgiveness were so prevalent in the work.
“The Spitfire Grill” is peppered with characters who have imposing pasts but retreating futures. It’s set in a small, rural town that speaks authentically to the experiences of anyone who has ever lived in one.
“The Spitfire Grill” has just a handful of characters — a widow who owns the grill, an ex-con who takes a job there and the law enforcement type who makes it possible. Also a town gossip and a couple whose relationship changes as the man feels his masculinity challenged by his wife’s discovery of life outside the laundry room. And a final character central to the musical’s themes of shame and loss.
The cast is a delightul mix of actors who’ve often graced the Phoenix Theatre stage (Johanna Carlisle as Effy, Rusty Ferracane as Caleb and Toby Yatso as Joe) and those making a Phoenix Theatre debut (Jason Barth as Eli and Trisha Hart Ditsworth as Percy). Barbara McBain returns to Phoenix Theatre as Hannah and Jeannie Shubitz returns as Shelby.
If you like spunky or feisty women, you’ll find them at “The Spitfire Grill.” As events unfold, one woman is forced to confront her goodness as another learns to embrace her power. Two face the loss of a child, and learn to let go of the shame they need never have carried. The men feel less transformed somehow, but that could be my chromosomes talking.
There’s much to love about “The Spitfire Grill.” Dialogue like Percy’s “If a wound goes real deep, can the healin’ feel just as bad as what caused it?” Music, rich in strings, that leaves you just a little bit tempted to get up and square dance, two-step or do a jig. And storytelling praised by many who attended opening night as “simple” and “straightforward.”
Several of the songs, slower ballads that soar like the birds they sometimes reference, are among the most beautiful pieces I’ve heard in the world of musical theater — reminding me of other favorites like “Maybe” from “Next to Normal.” Ordering the cast album from the folks who created “The Spitfire Grill” is high on my “to do” list.
“The Spitfire Grill,” directed for Phoenix Theatre by Brad Carroll, is based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff (though the film and the musical have entirely different endings). It features music by James Valcq, lyrics by Fred Alley, and book by both Valcq and Alley.
Alan Ruchs serves as musical director for this production (he’s the resident musical director at Phoenix Theatre). Mike Eddy serves as director of production and lighting designer. Robert Andrew Kovach serves as scenic designer. All perform brilliantly in making “The Spitfire Grill” at Phoenix Theatre a moving experience for theater-goers.
While “The Spitfire Grill” has been dubbed “a musical about second chances,” I’m not convinced that tagline does it justice. Plenty of people get the gift of a second chance nowadays without undergoing any real change.
“The Spitfire Grill” is more of a transformation tale — a story of family and forgiveness rooted in very real evolutions of self. A world without forgiveness for self, others and sometimes even the universe, is a miserable one indeed.
“The Spitfire Grill” is a lovely gem of a musical reminding us all to let go and let live.
Note: Phoenix Theatre is undergoing its own transformation, which you can learn more about or get more involved with by clicking here.
Coming up: Who’s munching who?, Before there was Zuccotti Park…