Searching for the Bright Side

<b>CORRECTION:</b> An actress sharing the lead role in the play “The Spitfire Grill” at Las Vegas Academy was misidentified in this story in Neon Thursday on April 29. Her name is Rachel Richards.

Hope merely floats?

Here, hope swims the 200-meter breast stroke, the 400-meter freestyle, goes water-skiing, executes a triple somersault off the high board and out-Phelps Michael Phelps.

"It's about the power of forgiveness and having a whole new hope for the future," says Glenn Edwards, director of the musical "The Spitfire Grill," staged by students of the Las Vegas Academy. "All of the characters in the piece have one thing or another that is not right with their lives. They forgive themselves and find a way to heal."

Opening tonight at the school's Lowden Theatre, "Spitfire," based on the 1996 film, follows Percy Talbot, a woman released from prison after doing time for manslaughter, having taken a straight razor to her abusive, rapist stepfather.

Optimistic, you say? Stories about redemption have to start a little dark of heart before the soul can burst into the light. Ultimately, as New York Times critic Ben Brantley opined in his 2001 review: " 'The Spitfire Grill' ... makes 'The Music Man' look dark and twisted."

Symbolism surrounds "Spitfire," as Percy settles in a rural Wisconsin town named Gilead, overlaying religious overtones with all the subtlety of a Vatican Mass.

"She is the balm that comes in and allows the healing," Edwards says, citing the allusion to "balm in Gilead," the healing compound mentioned in the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Book of Genesis. (Covering all references: "Balm in Gilead" also is the title of a Lanford Wilson play, and the herbal salve known as Balm of Gilead is used in skin care products.)

After Percy arrives at the out-of-the-way burg, her parole officer lands her a gig at the struggling Hannah's Spitfire Grill, up for sale, not one buyer on the hook. Then an essay contest is held with $100 entry fees, the Spitfire going to the essayist who best describes why he or she wants the joint. Soon, entries are piling up and the grill is hot again, as Percy's personal rebirth parallels a renaissance for the downtrodden town.

Celebrating new beginnings, the musical aims to emphasize the power of what a single person can accomplish.

"When she leaves prison, which is right when the show starts, all of the walls she puts up from what has happened to her are really obstacles for other people to get to know her," says 15-year-old freshman Kara Overlien, who is double-cast as Percy with 19-year-old Rachel Richards. "The first time her walls start to break down is one of my favorite songs, called 'This Wide Woods,' " Kara says. "You start seeing what she feels about Gilead as a place to start over."

Rotating the lead role between younger, light-haired Kara and older, brunette Rachel adds a vive-le-difference element. "They're completely different shows," Rachel says. "But it still holds true to what the writer was trying to get across."

"Spitfire's" score, performed by a pianist, departs from tradition, not so much a propellant for a standard musical -- though there are straightforward numbers -- but more filmic, underscoring scenes to inject mood.

"I've never seen a show like this, where you have to land a line on a certain note," Rachel says. "Like you have to throw an ax onto a stump on a certain note. It's difficult, doing the staging and the blocking. But every character has their own style of music, and when it's perfect, it's magical, absolutely brilliant."

"Spitfire" optimizes the optimism, Edwards says, by rejecting the film's denouement. "I loved the movie, one of my favorites from the '90s, but my qualm with the ending was in the movie, the girl dies," he says. "But in the last 20 minutes of the play, it's very different from the movie. Everything changes. I've grown to really appreciate this piece."

Hope merely floats? Here it's shot skyward atop the spray of Bellagio's fountains.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@review or 702-383-0256.