Like the titular caf, the Laguna Playhouse's West Coast premiere of James Valcq and Fred Alley's The Spitfire Grill is full of low-key charms. Based on the mostly overlooked 1996 movie of the same name (remembered, if at all, for starring Ellen Burstyn), this incarnation is a musical (!) that's surprisingly free of bombast (!!).
Out of prison after five years, Percy (Misty Cotton) decides, based solely on a picture torn from a travel book, to start over in the little town of Gilead, Wisconsin. Stepping off a bus in the middle of the night in the dead of winter, Percy is greeted by the kind-hearted Sheriff Sutter (Kevin Earley), who, though dubious about Percy's desire to settle in the economically depressed town, steers her to a room and job at the Spitfire Grill, run by the crusty Hannah Ferguson (Jomarie Ward). Percy's rough edges and questionable background arouse the suspicions of Hannah's protective nephew Caleb (Michael Piontek) and town gossip Effy Krayneck (Linda Kerns), but her good-hearted determination and genuine love of place quickly win over Hannah and the Sheriff—and earn her the friendship of Caleb's timorous wife, Shelby (Kim Huber).
What follows is a sweet-natured celebration of small-town living and the redemptive power of community. Director/choreographer Nick DeGruccio's simple staging sails smoothly past some of the plot's more convoluted elements—a mother-and-child reunion with a Vietnam twist, an essay contest that helps the townsfolk learn to love themselves and Gilead once more—and, despite an overreliance on some banal musical exposition and a weakness for the occasional trite lyric—"when a man could be proud of the way he earned his daily bread," a whole number that's actually called "Something's Cooking at the Spitfire Grill"—Alley's songs are delivered with such earnest conviction by the truly exceptional cast that only the most hard-hearted critic would fail to be won over. Anchored by Cotton's subtly moving lead performance and an absolutely outstanding turn by Huber, each member of the cast invests their character with authentic heartache and simple grace, making this the strongest ensemble performance I've seen all year. Like musical comfort food, The Spitfire Grill won't challenge your palette, but it satisfies.
THE SPITFIRE GRILL AT LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE, 606 LAGUNA CANYON RD., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 497-ARTS. TUES.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 & 7 P.M. THROUGH DEC. 1. $42-$49.