Wednesday, June 7, 2017


The cast of "The Spitfire Grill" at North Coast Repertory
Theater. Photo by Aaron Rumley.
The world of today appears to be in constant turmoil. Culture wars and shooting wars abound here in America as well as on every continent on our fragile planet. Everyone stares too long and makes judgments far too quickly when it comes to the strangers we find in our midst.

We rely on our tribal or family loyalties, the cornerstones and touchstones of a civilized society that at times is necessary but in so doing robs us of enlightenment and the pleasures that comes when societies reach out culturally to one another. Take the metaphor of food, as one example of how we have expanded our gustatory experiences and horizons over the years. Our American melting pot society is filled with success stories where one can see the advantages and possibilities that a diverse society provides.

The current North Coast Repertory Theatre revival production of “The Spitfire Grill”, a musical dramedy written by James Valq and Fred Alley, with music by Valcq and lyrics by Alley, is a shining example of the power some ‘outsiders’ can bring to the table or to a community if just given a chance.

Intelligently, sensitively and seamlessly directed by Jeffrey B. Moss, with an inspired ensemble cast of actors who can sing (and boy, do they sing) this uplifting and warmhearted musical is just what American theatre audiences need right about now.

Aurora Florence is Percy in "The Spitfire
Grill". Photo by Aaron Rumley.
The story in short, centers around fiercely independent Percy Talbott (a terrific Aurora Florence), a young, Applachian-accented woman who has just been released from prison. Percy is looking to find a place for a fresh start in life. While in prison she read a travel magazine about the idyllic, small, rural town of Gilead, Wisconsin which sounded like a good place to begin her new life journey.

The local Sheriff, young Joe Sutter (Kevin Earley) who is also Percy’s parole officer, finds her a job at Hannah Ferguson’s Spitfire Grill, owned by and operated by a force-of-nature earth mother solidly played by actress Devlin. It’s the only eatery in the town and is frequented daily by loyal residents. The Spitfire Grill has been up for sale for ten years, but has never had any interested buyers. Times have been tough for America’s Midwest economy and Gilead is barely hanging on.

Kevin Bailey and Meghan Andrews in
"The Spitfire Grill." Photo by Aaron Rumley.
Shelby Thorpe, the wife of the out-of-work local stone quarry foreman Caleb (Kevin Bailey) is a caring, young woman played by soprano Meghan Andrews, who gently tries to make a home life while at the same time occasionally helping Hannah at the diner. She endures the frustration of her proud husband who resents her time spent at the Grill and her association with Percy. To further complicate matters, Shelby and Percy have become friends.

Post Mistress Effy Krayneck, who never misses a chance to open the mail before the addressees, is nicely played and sung by Maggie Carney who makes the most of her comic relief role as Gilead’s leading gossip and busybody.

Devlin and Matt Thompson in "The Spitfire
Grill." Photo by Aaron Rumley.
Also, there is a character called The Visitor who never speaks, but whose haunted eyes speak volumes, well-played by Matt Thompson. And, that’s about as far as I’ll go with spoiler alerts. You will just have to see this splendid musical for yourself.

The real beauty of this production lies in the multi-talented ensemble cast with a director who understands how to craft and shape compelling, poignant, comedic, and dramatic moments and performances from pros who are a joy to watch. Everyone is constantly in the moment. On-stage chemistry electrifies the entire cast from the minute that Percy comes on stage and sets the tone for all the magic that follows with her song “A Ring Around the Moon”.

The story of “The Spitfire Grill” unfolds over fifteen haunting and poetic songs that conjure up echoes and aural memories of John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Road” along with Valcq and Alley’s original country/folk musical score that features such numbers as: ‘The Colors of Paradise’ sung by Percy and Shelby, ‘Forgotten Lullaby’ lovingly rendered by Hannah, and the rousing “Shoot the Moon” by the company that ends act one.

In act two, the numbers ‘Wild Bird’ by Shelby, ‘Shine’ by Percy, and a poignant ‘Way Back Home’ by Hannah, bring the entire company back on-stage for another rousing Finale. The nicest part, at least for me, is that this highly entertaining musical is performed without one f-bomb being hurled from the stage. The musical’s creators substituted soaring music, soulful country lyrics, and sheer talent instead of relying on attention-grabbing street language pyrotechnics to win over its audience. However, in the name of transparency, this musical was written seventeen years ago in 2000. My, how we’ve changed.

The production is designed by Marty Burnett, lighted by Matt Novotny, with costumes by Elisa Benzoni, and sound design, by Chad Lee Thymes. The excellent musical accompaniment is headed by musical director Alby Potts on keyboard, guitar/mandolin by Nikko Nobleza, violin by Catherine Gray, and cello by George Spelvin (that great old theatrical name). In the new and emerging discipline of projection design, Aaron Rumley is right on the money; not too many just the right amount to set the tone and enhance the moods. If I were to mention that some of the song lyrics were a wee bit too repetitious and went on too long, it would probably give my age away. So I won’t. But the soaring voices of the company made me forget all that repetition.

“The Spitfire Grill” performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre, Solana Beach, through June 25. Don't miss it!

--Jack Lyons


“The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit…”

Ryun Yu stars as civil rights activist
Hirabayashi in the solo show
"Hold These 
Truths". All photos by Jim Cox.
So says young Gordon Hirabayashi’s father to his eldest son, whose outgoing and curious disposition is being tested by the increased discrimination in Washington state against Asian Americans; with the escalation of the war and the subsequent bombing of Pearl Harbor, the discrimination increased until it culminated in executive orders to intern all persons of Asian descent in prison camps with no regard to their constitutional rights.

Jeanne Sakata’s “Hold These Truths” is inspired by the true story of civil rights pioneer Hirabayashi. The 90-minute solo show presents Hirabayashi’s fight to reconcile his country’s betrayal while maintaining his passionate belief in the U.S. Constitution. Despite President Obama posthumously awarding a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor in 2012 to him, his story is mostly unfamiliar to many Americans.

In 1942, the University of Washington student defied the U.S. government, and his worried parents, by refusing to register and be interned in the desert with tens of thousands of fellow Japanese American citizens who were viewed as a potential threat to national security after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor.

Hirabayashi, a Quaker pacifist, also rejected signing a loyalty oath and doing military service. For his acts of resistance, he served time in prison. His unrelenting efforts to reverse the unconstitutional internment of any persons of Japanese ancestry ended up with a case at the Supreme Court - where he lost in a unanimous decision upholding the government’s actions based on “military necessity.”

Paving the way to Hirabayashi's ultimate victory, legal historian Peter Irons discovered lost military documents, letters and memos admitting that confining Japanese Americans to camps had not been a necessary security measure: The camps, they implied, were created out of hysteria and racism. This new evidence led to the case being reheard by the Supreme Court in 1987 and this time, justice prevailed.

The timeliness and irony of the situation is not lost on the audience who chuckled and sighed at various incidents portrayed on stage that sadly echo what is happening now due to the current administration’s policies and fears of terrorist threats in the US and the world.

Actor Ryan Yu portrays Hirabayashi from his teens to middle age also playing all other parts of the protagonists and heroes of his life - including his mother and father, fraternity brothers at UW, law enforcement officials, his Quaker girlfriend and even Supreme Court Justice Patrick Murphy - and does it all seamlessly. His energy is heavily taxed during his 90-minute tour de force, but despite a slight cold, he kept the audience in thrall until the final moments.

Kudos to director Jessica Kubzansky (the original director at East/West Players) as well as the excellent technical team of scenic and lighting designing Ben Zamora who does a lot with simplicity, and sound designer John Zalewski whose subtle use of themes and natural sounds adds depth to the production.

Playwright Sakata, a successful actor herself, premiered the play in 2007 at East West Players in Los Angeles. It made its off-Broadway debut in 2012 with the Epic Theatre Ensemble, and has since been performed at numerous regional theatres including Portland Center Stage, the Guthrie Theater, Seattle’s ACT Theatre, and locally by Coachella Valley Rep in Palm Springs.

Says Sakata, “When I discovered Gordon’s story in the late 1990s, so full of heartbreak but also his irrepressible humor and zest for life...I knew I had to bring his story to the American stage.” She’s done a masterful job in showing the intimate view of one of our country’s shameful periods through the eyes of one eloquent and unrelenting man.

In a coda to his father’s early admonition, Hirabayashi shares that what he didn’t say back then was the full Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit…Unless the nail is bigger than the hammer!” That earned well-deserved kudos from the opening night audience followed by a spontaneous standing ovation. Let’s hear it for more ‘bigly’ nails and less hammers!

“Hold These Truths” is at the Pasadena Playhouse until June 25th. Tickets can be obtained through the Box Office or online at

-- Lisa Lyons