Review: The Spitfire Grill by Austin Playhouse
by David Glen Robinson

Austin Playhouse's musical The Spitfire Grill by James Valcq and Fred Alley uses sixteen songs to frame the story of a young female ex-con who chooses the hamlet of Gilead, Wisconsin in which to start a new life. She and the other denizens of the about-to-close café of the title unpack their considerable baggage over the course of the sixteen songs. Along the way, they find redemption. Much redemption, more than enough redemption to go around.


Ella Mia Carter, Bernadette Nason, Sarah Fleming Walker (photo by Steve Rogers)


This musical from 2000 seems a bit dated. Austin Playhouse presents it on a complex, multilevel set with professional lighting design and a five-piece musical ensemble led by Lyn Koenning. Lara Toner Haddock directs.


Valcq and Alley supply some Wisconsin color in their libretto and some of the lyrics, but their Gilead seems more like rural New England, perhaps New Hampshire or Maine. The cast does not use Midwestern accents. Englishwoman Bernadette Nason speaks and sings in standard American. The company did work assiduously at the premiere to support the musical world of the Midwest, notably with its post-show reception spread of midwestern foods and treats, headlined by an exquisite lattice-crust rhubarb pie. In theatre, food works!


Musical theatre makes strong demands on its stage beings, who must both sing and act and are often called to dance as well. Proper credit is due for arduous musical theatre performance. If a musical theatre singer-actor survives to the curtain call, they’ve done very well indeed. If they make it through the entire run, they merit a bonus. Are you listening, Austin Playhouse?


The cast of The Spitfire Grill did admirable work. All survived opening night, and by the criterion cited above they bid fair to earn bonuses. This isn’t to say that talent levels, notably singing skills, weren’t uneven. They were. Projection was a persistent issue, even though oddly, it seemed that most or all the cast were mic’d to deal with that. The problem appears to be that the upstairs community hall of the University Baptist Church just west of UT wasn’t designed to accommodate musical theatre—or conversely that The Spitfire Grill wasn’t particularly apt for that space.


Bernadette Nason (photo by Steve Rogerrs)


Ella Mia Carter (photo by Steve Rogers)

The cast dealt well with the issues. Veteran performer Bernadette Nason, in frightful Wisconsin winter hair, played the wizened and injured grill owner Hannah Ferguson. Her lines and singing were clear throughout. Over the course of her stage career Nason seems to have delighted in discovering the widest possible range of characters.


Lead singer of the show Ella Mia Carter as ex-con Percy Talbott accomplished the demanding work of singing the many songs on which the narrative is strung. Her misfortune was Valcq’s tendency to overtax lyrics in certain songs. The most glaring example was “There’s a ring around the moon,” the establishing lyric of the opening song bearing that title. “Shine” was another overused lyric and song. That song so brainwarped us that I found myself humming Pink Floyd’s “Shine on you crazy diamond” as I left the theater. Close, Mr. Valcq, very close! But Ella Carter wasn’t hoarse afterward and showed no signs of wear at the post-performance reception.


Sarah Fleming Walker, Matt Connely (photo by Steve Rogers)The redoubtable Matt Connely, fresh from his role as Le Fou in Beauty and the Beast, held the stage with great presence as Caleb Thorpe, beset and diminished by the overwhelming stresses and piled-on failures of male adulthood. Caleb’s choice not to reach out for help was partly to blame for the absence of his wife Shelby (Sarah Fleming Walker), who drifted away from him to find recipes and sisterhood at the grill. Connely’s tenor gave very sensitive voice to his angst in “Digging Stone,” the work's best-written song.



John Michael Hoke, Wendy Zavaleta (photo by Steve Rogers)


John Michael Hoke as Sheriff Joe Sutter and Wendy Zavaleta as Effy Krayneck were characters that helped establish place and provided plot camouflage, so some obvious onrushing plot lines were less blatant.


James Davery (photo by Steve Rogers)Tongue-in-cheek irony is extremely rare in musical theatre. James Davery as The Visitor enacted his role without speaking a single word or singing a single note. Wrapped well up to Wisconsin standards in a bulky top, flannel, field trousers, and knit cap pulled low, Davery the human being was almost invisible. Almost a fabric Sasquatch, he appeared onstage at critical points, projecting his presence in silence. The fact that his story segment, essential to the whole, didn’t quite scan was the playwrights’ fault, not Davery’s.


The Spitfire Grill is a must-see for die-hard musical theatre mavens. Others might rate it about medium. Most are likely to enjoy tracking developing singing talent showcased in the production. And of course it’s always a joy to see Bernadette Nason mine the nuggets out of her always dense characters.

The Spitfire Grill
by James Valcq, Fred Alley, Lee David Alotoff
Austin Playhouse

January 26 - February 18, 2024
Austin Playhouse
6001 Airport Boulevard
Austin, TX, 78752

January 26 – February 18, 2024

Thurs – Sat at 8:00 p.m. | Sun Jan 28 & Feb 18 at 2:00 p.m. | Sun Feb 4 & Feb 11 at 5:00 p.m.

Austin Playhouse (new West Campus location) | 405 West 22nd | Austin TX 78705

Tickets are $38-44; with Pick-Your-Price Thursdays and Half-Price Student Tickets are available at; group discounts are available for parties of 10+. Group inquiries can be made at

Age Recommendation: 13+ for mild adult language and themes. Children under 5 are not permitted.