We are in a golden age of original cast recordings, in one sense at least: practically everything makes it to CD. Now that cast albums are more of a cottage industry than a profit center for the likes of RCA and Sony, small labels will take small chances on small shows that had small runs--shows like The Spitfire Grill, which had a brief stay at Playwrights Horizons in late 2001. The work of James Valcq (music) and the late Fred Alley (lyrics), Spitfire has yielded a cast album from something called Triangle Road Records. With six principals, five musicians, and no backup chorus, Grill falls under the category of "chamber musical"...meaning that it's small.
It's certainly not unusual in that regard; consider other recent, small to mid-sized Off-Broadway shows like Roadside, Summer of '42, and After the Fair. Sometimes, modest proportions are clearly intentional: If you made Playwrights Horizons' own succes d'estime, Floyd Collins, any bigger than it was, you'd ruin it. But more often, as with The Spitfire Grill, an uncomfortable feeling takes hold that a Broadway-scale project has been downsized in hopes of getting it produced. You're aware at every turn of economic compromises that necessitated a Lilliputian scale. It must be frustrating for the authors, like painting with one-third of a palette.
Adapted from a middling chick-flick of 1996, The Spitfire Grill transports us to Gilead, Wisconsin...so we know at once that Biblical references and themes of redemption will abound. Perchance Talbott (Garrett Long), or Percy for short, newly released from prison, is installed as a waitress at the Spitfire, owned by Hannah Ferguson (Phyllis Somerville). Hannah is a salty-crusty-tough-gruff-raspy widow with a soft center--in short, Elaine Stritch in all but casting--and she longs to end her days and nights of frying and scouring. Like several residents of this decaying industrial hamlet, she has a TV-movie-style secret that will be revealed in Act One and resolved in Act Two.
Percy suggests that Hannah raffle off the restaurant to whoever writes the best essay about why they would like to own it. Contest entries pour in, and the eloquent essays help to restore pride to Gilead and transform the lives of everyone: the Spitfire's other, mousy waitress (Liz Callaway), her domineering husband (Armand Schultz), the town busybody (Mary Gordon Murray), and Percy's restless parole officer, Sheriff Joe (Steven Pasquale). Joe falls in love with the town and with Percy--though, oddly, Valcq and Alley don't give the couple a love song. Oh, and guess who wins the grill. Just guess.
Second chances, tentative romances, female bonding, old wounds reopened and healed--these are musical theater ingredients as familiar as the Heinz ketchup on the Spitfire's shelf. The score spins them out competently and occasionally better than competently, especially in Percy's songs. "Out of the Frying Pan" has her bustling amusingly around the kitchen, ruining coffee cake for 36 to a lively, Western style melody (but why that kind of sound in Wisconsin?). "Shine" is the big-belter wherein Percy connects with her spiritual self, and "This Wide Woods," her one duet with Sheriff Joe, is lyrically vague but musically gleaming. Throughout, the gifted Garrett Long is spunky and in fine voice, if not wildly original.
The other characters don't fare as well. When you have Liz Callaway to sing your ballads, you're halfway home; but her two solos are soggy, greeting-card-like things, with lyrics like "When hope goes, hearts close" and "When you reach the farther shore, then you will be free, wild bird!" Somerville hasn't quite the vocal chops to negotiate "Way Back Home" or "Forgotten Lullaby"; and Schultz, grunting and huffing through "Digging Stone," is as fake as hell. Valcq does provide pretty tunes and, for the most part, outclasses his partner's efforts. Alley's lyrics are simple and almost exclusively, gratingly iambic ("I'm JUST a FOOL who COULDn't SEE / The FORest FOR the TREES"), with neat but unchallenging rhymes. When the company gathers for an ensemble number, the couplets are likely to be repetitive and borderline-juvenile: "Shoot the moon, shoot the moon / Life is hard and gone too soon"; or, "Say what you want, say what you will / Something's cooking at the Spitfire Grill."
Even those sentiments are set to catchy melodies. But for a piece that keeps vocalizing about "The Colors of Paradise" (i.e., Gilead in the fall), The Spitfire Grill is mostly oak-leaf brown: too many cello solos to signal pathos, too much folksy guitar strumming, all those thudding chords to indicate emotional epiphanies. The skimpy orchestrations give the score a sameness--not only do a lot of the songs sound alike, they sound like a lot of songs from other similar-sized, equally earnest works of recent vintage. (As a point of contrast: I caught the Village Light Opera Group's presentation of Dearest Enemy, the 1925 Rodgers and Hart musical, with the original orchestrations meticulously reconstructed. The show had big sets, two dozen chorus girls in Revolutionary War silks, and a full orchestra sawing away. Woodwinds twittered, brass blared; the songs flew out of the pit, danced around the room, spread joy into the far reaches of the auditorium, and landed as prettily as a lark on a linden. And Dearest Enemy was one of the smaller musicals of its day...or, as one contemporary critic tagged it, "a baby-grand opera.")
This is not to castigate Valcq and Alley for failing to be Rodgers and Hart or to suggest any road back to the commercial climate of Broadway '25; still, it's interesting to compare audiences' expectations about musicals then and now. With its spare ingredients cooked into a familiar, comfort food recipe and its heart in the right place, The Spitfire Grill is tasty enough as these veggie-burger musicals go. But we've been on a steady diet of veggie burgers for such a long time, and I long for a hot fudge sundae.