by Sheryl Flatow
Since its Off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 2001, The Spitfire Grill has become something of a phenomenon, having been staged more than 500 times including productions in Canada (15), Scotland, England, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and The Netherlands. In 2018 alone, there were 39 productions around the United States. This spirited and uplifting musical by James Valcq (music and book) and the late Fred Alley (lyrics and book) tells a heartfelt tale of second chances and new beginnings that resonates powerfully with critics and audiences alike.
Bruce Linser, who will direct PBD’s production (February 1-24), counts himself among the show’s fans. “I’ve seen the musical once and I’ve read it several times because I’ve always wanted to direct it,” he says. “It’s a beautiful story with great characters, including strong women characters – and I think we need a lot more of those, especially in musical theatre. I also like the bluegrass score; the music itself is really intricate and interesting.”
In The Spitfire Grill , a young parolee named Percy starts her life anew in fictional Gilead, Wisconsin. It’s a place so desolate that Joe, the sheriff, refers to it as a “ghost town.” Percy gets a job at the Spitfire Grill but most of the locals, including her boss, Hannah, are wary of her, and the feeling is mutual. When she learns that Hannah has been trying to sell the grill for 10 years, she comes up with an idea that ultimately has a profound impact on her and the moribund town.

The show is based on a 1996 film of the same name, but in addition to musicalizing the material, Valcq (above left) and Alley (above right) made major, substantive changes. Broadly, the musical is a much more hopeful piece with a far different ending than the movie. They also changed the locale from rural Maine to Wisconsin, their home state. As it happens, Linser is also from Wisconsin and sometime in the 1980s, when he was just getting started, he appeared in a community theatre production of Oklahoma! with Valcq. He says that knowing the landscape is a huge plus as he approaches the show. 

“I’m a big one for having a personal connection to the work and I try to find that with my actors as well,” says Linser, “so anything that puts you in the mindset of these people and their lives is very helpful. Being from small town, Wisconsin – not Gilead small, but small – I understand that sensibility of Midwest nice and Midwest caution. By that I mean we’re not necessarily open to strangers and especially a stranger like Percy, who has a past. I also understand this sense of ‘buttoned down-ness’ of Midwesterners. We can be really open and we can be really protective. I think that that's a big part of where I'm going to start with the actors. All of these characters are damaged in some way. They’re all really stuck in places and they're very protective of their ‘stuck-ness.’ That this woman, a complete outsider, comes in and because of her everyone finds redemption and finds forgiveness and finds beauty in what has become very routine, is really powerful. And I understand that from an Upper Midwest perspective.” 
In the wrong hands, a couple of the characters could come off as one-note and simply dislikeable. Linser, who also teaches acting, says, “I always tell my students that you cannot judge your character, because the minute you start judging them, you can’t play them honestly and truthfully. ‘Nasty’ characters are nasty because they've been hurt, because they’ve been damaged, because they have some need that's not being met. Our job as actors is to find both sides of everything. I also tell my actors all the time that it’s way more interesting to watch a character play two things than one. So, you can love your mother because she's your mother and she can drive you up the wall, all at the same time. And I think that's really what's going on with the characters in The Spitfire Grill : they are hurt, they are scared, their livelihoods are at stake, their emotional states are at stake. They have great heart and they have great pain, and finding both of those things is always a part of my rehearsal process. I think that’s what makes it interesting, for actors as well as audiences, and I think it's what makes them human. And if we do nothing else in the theatre, we present the human condition in ways that people can relate to and understand. So, even the worst villain onstage believes that there’s right in what he or she is doing. And it’s our job to find that and flesh it out.”

Linser says the musical speaks to him on many levels. “Redemption is certainly a big part of it,” he says. “So is forgiveness, both forgiving others and forgiving ourselves. Hope is also a huge part of it, being able to move forward, being able to accept who we are and where we’ve been and what we’ve done. And as I said earlier, it’s so important that we are showing strong and capable women who, for lack of a better way of saying it, don’t need men. What I want to bring out in this piece is the humanity, the vulnerability of who we are in our hearts and souls. We’ve gotten so far away from heart and soul, and I think we need more of it. And this show gives it to us.” 
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