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Davidson's Winners Return 

Chatting with The Spitfire Grill's leading actress

The funky musical production of The Spitfire Grill by Davidson Community Players won state honors over a year ago, and its leading actress, Lisa Smith, took away outstanding vocalist honors at last year's regional competition in Atlanta. But Smith is afraid that people will miss out when the show finally arrives, full-blown, at McGlohon Theatre this week.

"Yes, I'm worried that people who have never heard of the show, who would like the show, may not come," says Smith, "because ... what's that? Is The Spitfire Grill a new restaurant in town?"

People who caught the original 1996 film won't suffer that confusion. The story follows ex-con Percy to Gilead, Wis., -- with frictions best summed up by the flick's tagline: "a girl with a past comes to a town with no future." Townspeople and Percy have a lot to work on in a process of mutual healing, best savored when the James Valcq-Fred Alley musical exploits the country-style Linda Rondstadt timbre of Smith's voice.

Long before the show was scheduled at Davidson, Smith coveted the role. Even before that, local actor/director Dennis Delamar knew that she'd be perfect for it. He first encountered the show during a trip to see a CPCC Summer Theatre colleague perform in it. Upon returning to Charlotte, he sought out a cast CD, put it in Smith's hands and told her she had to play this role someday.

Smith had seen the Lee David Zlotoff movie years before at the Park Terrace Theatre. She fell in love instantly with the musical but wasn't sure that Delamar's someday would ever come. Early in 2006, she was working with director Melissa Ohlman-Roberge for the first time in A Little Night Music at Theatre Charlotte. Ohlman-Roberge was hardly less prescient than Delamar. She asked Smith about her plans for the fall and told her that she would like her to come up to Davidson to audition. They were planning something different, a small musical.

"What's it called?" Smith asked.

"Not too many people know it, but it's called The Spitfire Grill," Roberge responded.

Then, as Smith recalls it: "I burst out into tears! At Theatre Charlotte! I was like, 'Oh, I love that show!' I never thought anybody would do that show in Charlotte."

Technically, nobody has -- yet. To enter the state competition, staged at McGlohon Theatre in November 2006, O-R had to abbreviate the show so that it could be presented in under an hour. That same abridged version traveled to the Atlanta regionals in March 2007. If you think going back to the full-length version after converting to a shorter version is difficult now, imagine how confusing it was in 2006. Competition at McGlohon happened during the original run of Spitfire Grill -- which played its first week in Davidson and its second in Mooresville. The whole cast had to remain on-book for two versions of the same show.

"That was the nuttiest day," Smith recalls. "We had to compete in the morning and then go back to Mooresville -- load up the truck, go back to Mooresville, unload, reset up the stage, and then click our brains back to the long version. Then during intermission, we found out that we won! We couldn't go to the awards ceremony, so at intermission they called us. I had friends and family in the audience that night, and they knew we had won because we were so loud all of a sudden from backstage."

Perhaps the most fascinating part of The Spitfire Grill is the way that Percy's healing process provides balm for Gilead.

"It's a broken town, and she's a broken person," Smith observes, "and they all heal together by facing their fears and letting truths be told as situations come to light that people have been hiding."

Way up in Wisconsin, Spitfire Grill manages to radiate some of the moonlight magic of To Kill a Mockingbird -- in a more adult vein. Percy isn't the usual broken character. Fixing her will require her being less tough while her strength begins to infuse others.

"Lori Tate, who plays Shelby, she and I were talking about arching characters the other day, and we were saying how the two characters rub off on each other. Shelby starts to stand up for herself, become a little more confident, and Percy gains some of Shelby's sweetness and trusting and friendship. They're such an interesting arc, because they start 180 degrees apart from each other, but they both learn so much from each other over the course of the show."

Toss in some small-town small-mindedness, a pinch of nocturnal mystery, burnt coffee, torchy country tunes, plus the aroma of griddle grease, and it's all pretty tasty.

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