By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Sep 30, 2002 at 5:37 AM

The story of how "The Spitfire Grill" ended up on stage is as bittersweet as the play itself.

Collaborators and childhood friends, James Valq and Fred Alley, met at Madison's summer music camp in 1980. Both became theater artists as adults, and after years of searching for the right project to tackle together, settled on turning the 1996 independent film, "The Spitfire Grill," into a musical.

The two men wrote six songs to accompany the story line. They also tweaked the script, setting the play in Wisconsin instead of Maine.

At the time, Valq and Alley imagined the play would run in regional theaters, but instead, the show opened at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey and last fall, moved to Playwright Horizons, an off-Broadway theater. The musical was well received, and won the Academy of Arts and Letters 2001 Richard Rogers Award.

Things couldn't have gone better for the two Wisconsin artists, but then tragedy struck. And struck again.

First, while jogging in Door County, Alley died unexpectantly of a heart attack. He was only 38 years old. And then, the twin towers fell, deeply wounding the world, including Broadway. Plays struggled to stay on stage despite plummeting ticket sales, and some just didn't make it.

"The Spitfire Grill" found its way back to Wisconsin, where it was seemingly meant to be all along: at the breathtaking Skylight Opera Theatre.

Painted on the Skylight Opera Theatre's ceiling are the words: "To help us forget some things, remember others and to refresh dry places in our spirit." These words were never more appropriate or comforting.

The tragedy and triumphs around this show created an energy that could be felt in the air. It's one of those plays that you sense is going to be a success before you see it.


And "The Spitfire Grill" surpasses expectations. It is simply splendid, with acting and singing that raise the bar on Milwaukee musical theater, a story line that is both tough and touching and a chemistry between actors that directors dream of.

"The Spitfire Grill" is the story Percy Talbott (Kate Wetherhead), a young woman who moves to a small Wisconsin town after spending five years in prison for a mysterious crime. The town sheriff (Christopher Chew) finds her a waitressing at Hannah Ferguson's (Phyllis Somerville) Spitfire Grill. Things get off to a rough start, but Percy prevails. She is the kind of person you dream of meeting, the kind who suddenly appears in your life and profoundly changes it forever.

Although Wetherhead started out a little shaky, she quickly settled into her role, and before long, her voice and acting abilities were arguably the show's strongest. Somerville is perfectly cast as the crabby-but-lovable diner owner, and Patricia Durante is hilarious as Effy Krayneck, the town gossip.

"The Spitfire Grill" is feel-good without the schmaltz. It's a captivating tale about starting over, forgiving and healing. As promised in the paint on the Skylight's ceiling: The dry places in your spirit will be refreshed.

The Spitfire Grill runs through Sun., Oct. 6 at The Skylight Opera Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Call (414) 291-7800 for tickets.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.