EmStage cooks up country vibes in “Spitfire Grill”

by Annie Huang / Beacon Staff • October 21, 2015

“The Spitfire Grill” played on the Paramount mainstage.
“The Spitfire Grill” played on the Paramount mainstage.

As the lights dim on the stage, a set resembling a small ‘80s-style diner comes into focus. Retro chairs and tables accompany bar stools in front of an open kitchen. To the left, a staircase leads up to a bedroom with only a floor lamp and bed. Hung high to the right of the set, a yellow neon sign reading “Spitfire Grill” flickers. 

Behind the cozy backdrop is a story about a murderer’s pursuit of a new beginning, a deserter’s quest for forgiveness, and a mother’s struggle to mend a broken relationship. Dark secrets about the character’s troubled past bubble up amid the light, comical songs and dialogue.

A tale of regrets and redemption, Emerson Stage’s “The Spitfire Grill” by James Valcq and Fred Alley emphasizes the importance of forgiveness and giving second chances. The musical ran as part of Family Weekend events on the Paramount Theatre Mainstage. Spiro Veloudos, an affiliated faculty member in the department of performing arts and the producing artistic director of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, headed the production.  

“The Spitfire Grill” follows recently released prison inmate Percy Talbott, played by senior performing arts major Ava Maag, as she finds her way to a midwestern town through a photograph clipped from a travel book. The caption reads, “Autumn colors along Copper Creek near Gilead, Wisconsin,” but the frozen, abandoned fields cause the locals to see otherwise.

Talbott is greeted by local sheriff Joe Sutter, played by junior performing arts major Devin Cortez, who leads her to the crumbling Spitfire Grill. When she becomes a waitress at the eponymous diner, Sutter is perplexed by Talbott’s motivation for coming to Gilead.

“[Talbott] sees the place that [Sutter] wants to get out of so badly as beautiful,” Cortez said. “Because of that, he eventually gained enlightenment and a new perspective on Gilead.”

Cortez said that everyone else in the show also experiences huge character arcs as a result of Talbott’s arrival.

“In a way, she brings out something good in everybody,” Cortez said.

Audience member Taylor Starr, who said she saw “The Spitfire Grill” in the past, said that EmStage’s production embodied a very different style.

“I especially liked how the edge of the stage is used to create a different world that is enhanced by the lighting,” the junior performing arts major said.

Freshman journalism major Paul Ross, who saw the show, said that despite the quality of the singing and acting, he found the plotline itself was very dry. 

“It lost my attention,” Ross said. “I felt that it is a play that needed a lot of work, but I don’t think that is something you can fault the actors with.”

Cast member Joe Hornberger, a junior performing arts major, said that there were a few challenges that came with playing the silent character of The Visitor, whose identity is revealed at the end of the musical.

“[The Visitor] is not very written into the show,” Hornberger said. “As a result, I need to know what he’s thinking in his head at all times and to make sure I’m conveying what he needs to be conveying without any songs or any lines.” 

Stage manager of the show, senior performing arts major Emily Pathman, said safe falls and axe swinging were some of the stage skills that went into the show. Pathman also said that although it is rare for musicals to have a small cast of seven, it plays to the production’s advantage. 

“Because of its size, [the cast] was able to work very quickly and develop a good relationship with each other within a small amount of time,” Pathman said.

Aside from the unusual size of the team, Cortez said that the lack of big dance numbers and the country-like sound of “The Spitfire Grill” sets it apart from typical musicals. He also said that the experience of being in this production was very special, and that the cast is one of the best ones he has been a part of. 

“I hope people leave happier, with a sense of gratefulness of what they have,” Cortez said, “and be reminded that [they] can accomplish and overcome anything that happened poorly in [their] life.”