Students in professor Brannon Wiles's Entertainment Arts Management class will be helping to produce a series of stage readings of "The Spitfire Grill" in honor of the 15th anniversary of the show's debut. The production will reunite the show's writer/composer James Valcq (at center, seated) with a number of its original leads, including Tony nominee Mary Gordon Murray (at left). (Photo courtesy of Ashley Gellman-LaLima)
A musical about second chances is getting one of its own this summer when students from Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design bring a theatrical stage reading of “The Spitfire Grill” to Philadelphia. The James Valcq and Fred Alley musical, adapted from the 1996 film starring Ellen Burstyn and Marcia Gay Harden, had the misfortune of opening in New York four days before the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. Though its moment in the Big Apple was not to be, “The Spitfire Grill” and Valcq have had a loyal following, including Drexel professor Brannon Wiles who, along with his Entertainment Arts Management students, are putting together a musical reading of the show that will reunite many of the original cast members. Valcq himself will direct the performances, which will be held at The Caplan Studio Theater on South Broad Street from June 3-5, in honor of the 15th anniversary of the show’s debut.
The musical, which ran in New York’s Duke Theater on 42nd Street for just shy of a month after theaters eventually reopened in the wake of the horrific tragedy, is itself, a story of redemption — and coming of age in a rural Wisconsin town. It holds a place near and dear to Wiles, as he saw his friend Garrett Long play the lead role of “Percy” several times during its run in the city while he was managing his own show just blocks away.
“The piece holds a great deal of significance to me, both because of my connection to the people involved as well as its place in my life as a New Yorker in September 2001,” Wiles said. “It was the first show I went to see following 9-11,” Wiles said. “It was the Saturday matinee on the 15th, and I think it was the first show they did after 9-11 when theaters reopened. I was general managing my own show, which was scheduled to open on Sept. 13, but it was on 13th St.; and everything below 14th St. was closed a little longer, so it wasn’t until the following week that we resumed performances. So I was able to go see Garrett in “The Spitfire Grill,” and it was one of the first signs that made me forget about the towers for a little bit and remind me that things could be normal again.”
For Wiles, a staged reading is a fitting way to observe the show’s anniversary because it enabled a number of the original cast members to come back together with the director and to present the piece in a way that honors the celebrated score.
“Most shows go through staged readings as part of their development, so doing something like this for a show that has already had several full productions is a return to its roots in some ways,” Wiles said. “Readings can allow for ‘starrier’ casts in some cases because of the super-short time commitment. Obviously the reunion aspect was a huge factor for some of the actors.”
Long will return as “Percy,” and Tony Award nominee Mary Gordon Murray, who played “Effy” in the show’s New York run, as well as Janet Metz, who was “Shelby” the show’s premiere at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey, will also reprise their roles for the reading. In addition, Armand Schultz, who played the role of “Caleb” in both the premiere and New York shows, will join the cast for the reunion performance. Local actors Nancy Boykin and Barrymore Award-Winner Ben Dibble will round out the ensemble.
While the show has seen its share of success in licensing during the last 15 years, there is a mutual acknowledgement that it had the potential to do better. And the idea of helping the show gain a bit more appreciation on its anniversary was a motivating factor for the students working on the project.
“The Spitfire Grill is a beautiful story, but because of its unfortunate timing, not everyone got see how well this show could have done,” said Marlyn Logue, an undergraduate in the Entertainment Arts Management program. “It won some awards and was nominated for even more, but it never got the chance to shine on Broadway. Not everyone has gotten to know and fall in love with these characters, and it’s a more obscure show than something along the lines of more popular musicals like Chicago. I want everyone to be able to see this show and love it as much as I have grown to love it.”
The selection of “The Spitfire Grill” also struck a chord with the students working on it, though it had been around for a while many of them were hearing it for the first time.
“I don’t believe any of us have seen it before, but the story is very relatable to us,” said Austin Paragas, one of the students involved in the production. “It’s a mixture of coming of age and coming to terms with yourself as the main characters do, and I think that is a theme that resonates heavily with us college students.”
It’s also the right-sized production for a class project operating on a tight academic schedule. This is the second year that Wiles and his Entertainment and Arts Management charges have produced a stage reading, last year they undertook a production of “Any Other Way.”
To Wiles, the learning experience presented by putting together stripped-down theatrical versions of musicals is as challenging as any the students would face working in the industry. The students were responsible for obtaining the performance rights and coming to agreement with the Actors’ Equity Association — the union for professional actors. They also secured the venue, the musicians and housing for the out-of-town actors and director, in addition to planning the show’s marketing, ticketing and publicity efforts. During the performances students will serve as stage manager and assistant stage manager and two will play in the orchestra.
“Staged readings are the right scale for a group like this to handle in the course of a 10-week term,” Wiles “They involve all aspects of a full production, so students can experience the challenges and successes firsthand, but it’s also scaled back enough that we can pull it off on a short timetable.”
Performances will be held at 8 p.m. on June 3-4 and at 2 p.m. on June 5 at The Caplan Studio Theater at 211 S. Broad St. Tickets are available at www.artful.ly/spitfire.