Front Porch Theatricals kicks off season with 'Spitfire Grill'
The musical's title, “The Spitfire Grill,” might suggest you're about to see a light comedy of small-town hijinks wrapped around a country-western score — “The Church Basement Ladies” meets “Greater Tuna.”
But since its founding in 2008, Front Porch Theatricals has earned a reputation for producing meatier musicals such as “Parade,” “The Last Five Years” and “In the Heights.”
To open its seventh season, the company had good reasons to choose “The Spitfire Grill.”
“We do musicals that are not overdone, that will leave you thinking and talking and affected,” says Leon Zionts, who co-founded Front Porch Theatricals and co-produces the seasons with Bruce E.G. Smith. “We are able to bring lesser-known musicals to the forefront, promote emerging actors and find great shows young people really love. We are never going to do ‘Oklahoma!' or ‘Annie' or ‘Godspell.' ”
Zionts had never heard of “The Spitfire Grill” until a friend suggested it would be a perfect fit for the company.
“When I listened to the score, I was pulled into the story where every character matters and their stories are important,” Zionts says. “This is a story about lives redeemed, a town redeemed and a family and hope redeemed.”
Based on Lee David Zlotoff's 1996 film with the same title, “The Spitfire Grill” focuses on Percy Talbott, who moves to Gilead, Wis., to restart her life after serving a five-year prison sentence.
She gets a job at Hannah's Spitfire Grill, which is owned and run by a cantankerous elderly widow named Hannah Ferguson. As Talbott copes with small-town living, she comes to understand that The Spitfire Grill and the town of Gilead, which never recovered from the closing of the local quarry, are also in need of a new start.
“It's a story about redemption, bringing a new life to a place that is not recognizing the strength it has at hand,” says Rachel Stevens, a 2009 graduate of Point Park University's musical theater program who has returned to Pittsburgh to direct the production. “It's the perfect piece to produce at this time because of its salt-of-the-earth story. ... It just feels really universal.”
It didn't take much coaxing to get Deana Muro to sign on as the show's musical director.
James Valeq and James Alley created a score that drew on musical styles of bluegrass and folk songs.
Muro, who previously served as Front Porch's musical director for “Parade” and “The Last Five Years,” has been a bluegrass fan since she was 10 and learned how to play the banjo from a Saturday morning series of banjo lessons on PBS.
“I love bluegrass,” Muro says. “It is the music of the people and the best example of Americana there is.”
Muro says the show's music is “very earthy” and “the orchestra is acoustic strings. Who doesn't love that?”
She also likes that the score supports the characters and their stories rather than attempting to draw attention to itself.
“You should almost not notice it,” Muro says. “The best thing you can say when you leave the theater is I forgot where I was.”
Promotional materials for “The Spitfire Grill” recommend it for those who are in middle school or older. While there's no overt sex or violence in the show, director Stevens notes that some adult topics pivotal to the plot are discussed during the musical.
“It's OK if you are prepared to have a conversation with your adolescents, and it's done tastefully with no imagery,” Stevens says. “It's a story for young people to see and a great way to open up a conversation about growing up and coming of age.”
Alice Carter is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.