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'The Spitfire Grill' isn't subtle, but it's charming

March 05, 2004|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

The wind howls. A prison security buzzer blares. Then a woman begins to sing, generating a warmth that thaws her surroundings.

These first moments telegraph the rest of "The Spitfire Grill," a little musical short on subtlety but long on charm. It's adapted from a 1996 movie that, to some tastes, was too on-the-nose. But as reworked by James Valcq and Fred Alley, this tale of renewal is like a set of arms, patiently waiting to wrap its audience in a hug.

Laguna Playhouse demonstrated the show's delights in 2002; now the show has reached L.A. in a beautifully staged, engagingly performed presentation by Actors Co-op.

Set in 1988, the story is driven by Percy (Deborah Lynn Meier), whose sweet, vulnerable voice is heard at the top of the show. Just released from prison, she travels to a small Wisconsin town, where the foliage -- especially the brilliant transformation it undergoes each fall -- becomes the show's defining symbol.

Someone who pulls away from other people's touch, Percy considers herself "a wild bird." Still, something pure begins to emerge from behind her tough, guarded exterior, which, in turn, sparks changes in residents of the dying town of Gilead: the sheriff (Rick Marcus); the snappish proprietor (Linda Kerns) of the sole eatery, the Spitfire Grill, where Percy finds work; the proprietor's suspicious nephew (John Senekdjian); his browbeaten wife (Denise Scarms); and even the shrill, gossipy postmistress (Bonnie Bailey-Reed).

The musical idiom is American folk, accompanied by an unseen keyboard and guitar trio, led by Gary Mattison.

Robert Bingham's set mixes detailed realism with mutable abstraction.

Much of the plot is far-fetched, and the cooking metaphors are overdone. No matter. Imperfections -- including those in the singing voices -- somehow end up enhancing the emotional authenticity of this production, directed by Joshua Finkel.


'The Spitfire Grill'

Where: Crossley Terrace Theatre, on the grounds of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, 1760 N. Gower St.

When: Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Dark April 8 to 11.

Ends: April 25

Price: $27

Contact: (323) 462-8460

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

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