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  • 'The Spitfire Grill' is a musical with heart

    The Next-Stage Repertory Company play continues tonight and Saturday at the Craterian Theater
  • Most of the characters in "The Spitfire Grill" are seeking redemption. Their interwoven struggles are the subject matter of the popular musical with music and book by James Valcq and lyrics and book by Fred Alley, based on the 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff.
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  • Most of the characters in "The Spitfire Grill" are seeking redemption. Their interwoven struggles are the subject matter of the popular musical with music and book by James Valcq and lyrics and book by Fred Alley, based on the 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff.
    The off-Broadway production won the The American Academy of Arts and Letters' Richard Rodgers Production Award in 2001, and the play has since been produced hundreds of times all over the world, now including a vibrant, carefully textured production by Next Stage Repertory Company that opened a short run at the Craterian Theater at the Collier Center in downtown Medford Thursday night.
    At the center of the Doug Warner-directed musical — the first ever undertaken by Next Stage Rep — is the journey of Percy Talbot, a emotionally wounded young woman starting a new life after prison in the mythical small town of Gilead, Oregon. The twist is that the homespun town itself has fallen on hard times but will undertake a journey, perhaps of renewal.
    Released on parole, Percy (Danielle Pecoff) gets a job at the Spitfire Grill, where the proprietor, Hannah Ferguson (Presila Quinby), is herself a spitfire. Burdened with a long-time secret of her own, Hannah has been trying to sell the grill, seemingly forever, with no results. That leaves it to Percy to come up with the winning idea: an essay contest to choose the new owner.
    When the townspeople, represented by comically snoopy postmaster Effy Krayneck (Gwen Overland), the town gossip, become suspicious of Percy in the way small towns do, Percy wonders if she's made a mistake. But when Hannah breaks a leg, it's up to Percy to keep the Spitfire afloat. The problem: She can't cook.
    That leads to a rescue by overbearing Caleb's (Peter Wickliffe) wife Shelby (Julia Cuppy) and some female bonding, reflected in songs such as the hopeful "The Colors of Paradise." "Shoot the Moon" is a song about the necessity of taking chances.
    There's a lot of singing indeed, with miked-up actors singing to a recorded soundtrack. Under Josh Killingsworth's vocal direction, the singing is strong and emotional, often featuring lovely harmonies. The songs are Broadway-esque with a dash of country twang, and they are never merely atmospheric, serving always to move the plot along.
    The set, which Warner designed, places the diner stage left and a sort of outback bower where action takes place outside the grill. A mysterious figure who keeps coming here to take the bread that Hannah has Percy put out back will figure in the play's emotional climax.
    A nice conceit is that Brad Nelson's lights reflect the tenor of the action on the stage, with the sky lighting up, for example, when there's a profound revelation afoot.
    There are a lot of hard stories in Gilead, including Shelby's about losing hope, Caleb's about trying to make it in a world where hard work is no longer enough, and Percy's, which involves growing up around the coal mines of West Virginia and coming in for some of the hardest knocks imaginable. About the only character not dogged down by life is Sheriff Joe Sutter (Adam Cuppy).
    The town itself seemed to hit the skids about the time Hannah's son, Eli, went missing in Vietnam after volunteering.
    Nuggets of heartland wisdom jump out here and there, as when Percy says of a wound that, "the healing can hurt as bad as what caused it." Later, Hannah reflects on her life, saying, "the pain will come like some forgotten lullaby."
    The spectacle of the town pulling together and showing resilience and hope, as reflected in the tune, "Come Alive Again," salutes the town's arc as seen through the changes in the lives of its denizens. It's never quite clear why a contest contrived by Percy has some a magical effect on the whole town.
    The spirit of resilience shown by the town in the second act must have been bracing for off-Broadway audiences in the wake of 911, when the play was new. What "The Spitfire Grill" lacks in sophisticated cleverness it makes up for with something often missing from Broadway shows: heart.
    It brings to life a bucolic world in which change is possible. It may be painful at times, but that's the way redemption seems to work.
    Performances continue at 7:30 this evening (Friday) and Saturday. Tickets are $18 at the box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., at www.craterian .org or by calling 779-3000.
    Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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