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MARCH 23 – APRIL 30, 2022
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A musical to inspire you with its grace, forgiveness, and hope. Percy is fresh out of prison and searching for a new life when she arrives in Gilead and meets Hannah, who has all but given up. The unlikely friends bond behind the counter of The Spitfire Grill, hatching a plan to raffle off the town’s rundown diner. When entries start pouring in from around the country, everyone awakens to a brighter future.
Originally a film released in the mid 1990s, The Spitfire Grill was adapted into a musical and its off-Broadway production opened on October 2, 2001, just weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Reviews of that production emphasized its heartfelt and hopeful nature. In the two decades that have followed, the musical has been produced over 700 times worldwide—in every major American city, as well as German, South Korea, Japan, and Canada.
In fact, this is Taproot Theatre’s second time bringing the musical to the stage. Scott Nolte directed the 2003 production and has returned to direct this production as well. Pam Nolte returns to the role of Hannah Ferguson. (Be sure to catch the interview with Pam in this newsletter.)
The story is rich with transformation and with hope, which are apt themes in today’s world.
“You can’t sugarcoat the fact that Gilead is seeing tough economic times, which contributes to the losses every character has experienced. And there are other personal losses and inner shame that have robbed them of hope. Surprisingly, the agent of hope turns out to be an outsider who’s packing a lot of hurt—and still prompts the slow steps back to second chances, forgiveness, and hope,” said director Scott Nolte in his Director’s Notes.
Even the setting and the season plays an important role in this sense of transformation.
“The natural beauty of Wisconsin is almost an additional character in this story,” writes dramaturg Sonja Lowe. “It’s the hope that draws Percy towards Gilead. Gilead and its residents are in the bleak of winter (both physically, spiritually and emotionally) at the beginning of the play. But the hope of fall color is waiting in their future.”
Nolte, who is one of Taproot Theatre’s co-founders and former Producing Artistic Director, has directed many productions at Taproot over the years, most recently Babette’s Feast. The cast includes Marlette Buchanan (Steel Magnolias, Crowns), Sarah Garcia (Taproot debut), Kelly Karcher (Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley), Pam Nolte (Babette’s Feast, Arsenic and Old Lace), Brian Pucheu (Bright Star), Fune Tautala (Taproot debut), and Chip Wood (Evidence of Things Unseen).
The production team includes R.J. Tancioco and Michael Nutting, co-musical directors; Richard Lorig, scenic design; Mark Lund, sound design; Jocelyne Fowler, costume design; Andy Duff, lighting design; Rik Deskin, stage manager; Sonja Lowe, dramaturg; and Gin Hammond, dialect coach.
The band is made of Michael Matlock, keyboard/conductor; Anthony Pooley, guitar/mandolin; Matthew Tevenan, cello; and Valerie Tung, violin.
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The Spitfire Grill is the third of several plays that Taproot had originally planned for 2020, and which were delayed because of the pandemic. Pam Nolte had already been cast in two of them—Babette’s Feast, which Taproot finally staged upon opening to live audiences this past winter, and this spring’s The Spitfire Grill.
Q. What was it like to wait all that time to wait to bring Babette’s Feast and The Spitfire Grill to the stage? And what does it mean to you to finally be able to do so?
A. I dearly love both the plays you mention and being able to do the work and finally present them to an audience is sheer joy for me.
Taproot Theatre’s subscribers were excited about and anticipating both Babette’s Feast and The Spitfire Grill and many of Taproot’s three-play subscribers had purchased both. TTC deserves a big round of applause for its commitment to completing the remaining 2020 season’s productions for its ticket buyers. With that commitment I had hope that regardless of how long the pandemic continued Taproot would present the final productions.
I’m confident that the themes of community and hope found in both plays will resound with even greater depth because of what we as a people have gone through together. It’s been a challenging two years for all of us. Now we’re moving forward again with fresh hope.
Playing the title role in Babette’s Feast was a dream role, and no actor could be happier than me to be given the opportunity to play the completely opposite role of Hannah in The Spitfire Grill. And the bonus for me? It’s a privilege and delight for me to repeat a role nearly 20 years later in a play that I consider one of my all-time favorites.
Q. Tell us a little bit about how you think about your character, Hannah Ferguson, and the point she’s come to at time of the story?
A. When we meet Hannah, she’s at least 10 years past the premature death of her husband and she’s been trying to sell the cafe that they ran together ever since then. She’s tired, and the years have not been kind. At my age, I’ve lived through plenty of sorrows and disappointments. It’s not hard to find Hannah’s despair at the beginning of the play. Thankfully, her story begins to turn with the arrival of a young woman fresh out of prison, and that’s the redemptive story of The Spitfire Grill.
Q. America and the world were in a different place in 2003 than they are now, almost 20 years later. Yet the themes and messages are fitting no matter the backdrop. What did The Spitfire Grill mean to you in 2003, and what stands out for you today?
A. A great deal in the world has changed and a great deal unfortunately is as relevant as ever. The musical premiered in 2001 just after 911. The second Iraq war began in 2003, and many thought that it would end that same year and our “boys” would come home. Hannah’s husband was a WWII hero, her son went missing in action in Vietnam. Another international incident is brewing even as I type this. So, in a world where war and the questions surrounding it are ever present, how do we move forward as a community?
Another interesting parallel in the play to current history is found in the story arc of the character, Caleb. The quarry has closed down, and with it, his means to an income to provide for his family in a way he knows and understands. In a particularly hard moment, Hannah says to Caleb “The quarry is closed. The past is dead.” Today, we are in another transition period leaving some of the “Calebs” in our world behind in a place of isolation and anger. Again, the resounding question is “how can we move forward?”
The themes of forgiveness, reconciliation and the resulting life-giving forward movement of a community sings out powerfully in the gorgeous, rich, musical score of The Spitfire Grill. Those redemptive themes truly point to the balm of Gilead for me.
Q. What are your hopes for the audience as they come to see The Spitfire Grill?
As always, I hope the audience will walk away in a more hopeful space than when they walked into the theatre, that they will be able to move into valuable conversations with family and friends, and that they will be singing a new song of what “the colors of paradise” can look like here, today, in this moment in time.
Q. Anything else you’d like to share?
Taproot is excited to have R.J. Tancioco and Michael Nutting returning as co-music directors for The Spitfire Grill. They’ve worked together on several shows at Taproot over the years, including Daddy Long Legs, which streamed during the pandemic closure. Here they share what it’s like to work together in this way, and how it feels to return to live theatre.
Q. What are some of the shows you’ve worked together on as co-musical directors at Taproot Theatre in the past?
MN. Co-music directing is not a very common thing. Generally speaking it takes a heroic amount of patience and collaboration to “co-direct” anything. It almost always is better to have a more hierarchical structure. That said, RJ and I have worked together in a TON of shows, and RJ was my first true Music Director mentor when I moved to Seattle (so if he doesn’t like how I “Co-music direct,” it’s his fault). Because we have worked together extensively and we know each other’s strengths, we find it quite at home to take on the task of music director as equal partners when the occasion calls for it like on Spitfire Grill. We have worked on the music team in the past on shows including In the Heights, Pump Boys and Dinettes, Newsies, and Sing It Forward at Village, Little Shop of Horrors, Jasper in Deadline, It Happened at the World’s Fair, and Urinetown at 5thAvenue / Act Theater, and this is our 4th show we’ve both worked on at Taproot, previously working on Persuasion, Bright Star, and Daddy Long Legs. Beyond that, we have played in the same pit orchestra probably 5-6 times on top of the above shows.
Q. When did the two of you first co-music direct a production? And what have been some highlights over the years?
RT. Michael and I have worked on several shows and fundraisers over several years at a few theatres in town (5th Ave, Village Theatre, ACT). But the first time we really collaborated on something was Little Shop of Horrors at ACT in 2014. We shared teaching the score to the cast. We’ve also worked on NEWSIES at Village Theatre, a handful of new musicals, and fundraisers for Village Theatre KIDSTAGE. We have even written a song together.
Q. R.J., you music directed the streaming Daddy Long Legs during the pandemic, and this will be your first Taproot production since the theatre reopened to in-person performances. What is the experience like returning to live productions for an in-person audience? Have you noticed any differences in your role whether the production is intended to be streamed or live?
RT. There’s NOTHING that compares to in-person teaching/rehearsals. We made it work over Zoom, but actors could not hear themselves with each other, and I could not play for them without a delay. So tracks had to be made so actors could sing along from their respected locations, but could not sing with each other. Singing in the same room is one of the reasons why I love musical theatre. Nothing compares to hearing the blend of voices in music! It’s live, it’s immediate, it’s spiritual.
MN. To add on to what RJ said (as I was the one who made all those damn tracks for Daddy Long Legs), rehearsing online shows is such a practice of delayed gratification. You put in all this work and never get to really see the show grow like you do in person. It’s more like being there for the birth of your child and then waiting till its 18thBirthday to see them again. You miss all the development in between. You get these little snapshots of greatness, learning, and love but you don’t get to witness the maturing process of your show going from a script and score to a fully realized show. From a practical perspective, it’s about three times as much work outside the rehearsal process to achieve the same final product. We had to create fresh tracks for the entire show, just to rehearse. Whereas, in a rehearsal process, you wouldn’t create any of those, you would just play from the piano.
Q. What are some of the challenges and delights of working on a musical like The Spitfire Grill? And what are some of the considerations you’ve brought to the process for this particular show?
RT. The Spitfire Grill is an intimate musical but speaks universal themes. One challenge is that the sound of the town needs to feel “big” with a smaller ensemble cast. But I also think that’s the beauty of it. The harmonies are full and lush and full of emotion, and we are swept into the story. The audience fills in the blank on what’s missing. The lyrics are vivid and provide enough imagery for the audience to escape. We, not only “see” the “colors of paradise,” but also sense it, feel it, hear it. And because this will be presented live, we can share that visceral experience with others. That’s the true delight!
MN. Every character in Spitfire is going through their own struggles and working through their own demons. We all have events in our lives we wish we could take back. We all have relationships that need to be fixed or forgotten. Watching this musical is gratifying because these characters have so many subtle complexities and we can see different pieces of ourselves in each character.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Playing on the Jewell Mainstage May 18 – June 18, 2022
Directed by Karen Lund
Three’s already a crowd in Willum’s house, but it’s as tight as a game of sardines when Rick unexpectedly arrives. He’s as interesting as quality control at a chalk factory, until his antics jeopardize Willum’s career. Sure, Rick once saved Willum’s life, but now he’s ruining it! Pass the deviled eggs, this party’s about to become a saucer-smashing good time!
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