Composer and playwright James Valcq didn't go to Wauwatosa East High, but he sure came close – and he knows the place well.
He grew up in Milwaukee not far from Wauwatosa and went to St. Bernard's Parish School as a kid, just a stone's throw down Wauwatosa Avenue from East High.
He attended Marquette High School, where he met Fred Alley. Both were committed to theatre, and after graduation they became collaborators and eventually co-authors of "The Spitfire Grill," a critically acclaimed and widely reproduced Off-Broadway musical.
Valcq and Alley's creation opens Friday night as the fall production by the Tosa East Players – acclaimed in their own right. It will be performed this weekend and next under the direction of Tom Thaney.
"Spitfire" isn't just a musical written by a couple of Wisconsin natives, it is a play native to Wisconsin, set in a rural Wisconsin town called Gilead and played out in characters familiar to the two writers from their youths.
The vehicle, though, began as a non-musical film of the same name written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff, of "MacGyver" fame. It was set in Maine and its characters spoke with hard, Down-Easter accents, Valq said in an interview. His and Alley's adaptation moved Midwest.
"For Fred, in writing lyrics, and for me, writing music with a kind of folk bent, it was natural to set it in Wisconsin," Valcq said.
The lead character, though, Percy, is from Virginia. But she gets in some big trouble that lands her in prison near here, in Taycheedah. When she gets out, she's bound and determined to change her life and decides that rural Wisconsin is as good a place as any to start.
A well-meaning sheriff helps her land a job at a run-down diner – the title place – in Gilead, and Percy sets about starting over, redeeming herself, fitting in.
Midwest prying, Midwest propping
It isn't as easy as all that, though. Even though Percy's checkered past is unknown, it doesn't stop the typical town busybodies from prying, positing and prevaricating about her. She's different, unfamiliar, and therefore suspect.
But when Hannah, the wizened and widowed proprietor of the diner, takes a bad fall and is incapacitated, Percy steps up and finds the fortitude not only to keep the business afloat but to give it a boost. The townsfolk of Gilead wake up a bit to the world farther around them when Percy proposes to raffle off the Spitfire Grill to keep it open, and more than that, to keep it a part of what Gilead is.
Vaclq and Alley adapted "Spitfire" as a heartland chronicle of redemption, a seri-comic Midwestern repudiation of the adage that "There are no second acts in America."
"It's show about forgiveness, of others, of yourself," Valcq said. "It's also about the land – and in a movie, you can just show the land, and the images can be poetic. But it a musical, you can sing it – the relationship of the land to your heart."
For the collaborators, that was a still a paradoxical concept, simple to understand yet complicated by human emotions and prejudices.
For Valcq, it would become all too much of a verity.
Tragedy strikes comedy, and the heart wins
Their creation, his and Alley's, would be premiered in New Jersey and attended by New York theatre producers in November 2000. It was liked, and soon it was slated for a major Off-Broadway production.
In May 2001, one week before the show was to open in workshop, prior to a New York opening, Alley, Valcq's friend and collaborator, died of an undiagnosed heart ailment while he was jogging in the woods at home in Wisconsin.
The show must go on, and it did. "Spitfire Grill," the pair's signature work, opened to critical acclaim that fall, in the first week of September 2001 – and shut down with the rest of New York just days later after the 9/11 attack.
"It was quite a time," Valq said. "When we reopened, we had the cast sing 'America the Beautiful' after the curtain call, and invited the audience to sing along. And a couple of the board members of Playwrights Horizons, the producers, said, 'You know, you don't have to say "America the Beautiful." The show has already done that.'"
The heartland values of fortitude and forgiveness are the heart and soul of "Spitfire Grill," and also in Valcq's heart.
"I moved to New York in 1989 and lived there nearly 22 years," he said. "Then, three years ago, I came to my senses and moved back to Wisconsin, to Sturgeon Bay."
Valcq would love to see East – his old neighborhood school, if not his alma mater – produce his play.
"For Fred and I," Valcq said, "who got together at Marquette – his big show was "Camelot," mine was "Carousel" – that was where we started, high school theatre. So, to see it produced at East, that's great.
"I think about our show being one where some kid starts out and really finds his or her love of theatre, that's really something. We talked about that, Fred and I. Wouldn't it be great if this could be a high school play? You know, it's great seeing it produced in Italy, but I really like that it's being done in a high school setting."
Valcq would love to make it down to see the show at East, but he isn't sure he can.
"I'm now directing the Third Avenue Playhouse" in Sturgeon Bay, he said. "It's keeping me really busy. I used to get home more often from New York than I do now."
When you go
The Spitfire Grill, by playwrights James Valcq and Fred Alley, won the Richard Rodgers Production award and was nominated for best Off-Broadway Musical.
Friday and Saturday and Nov. 16 and 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday at 2 p.m.
Online Tickets: Purchase tickets online with your credit card. Online sales end two hours prior to each show.
Phone Tickets: Call the ticket hotline at 414-773-2110. Phone sales close on Friday at noon before each weekend's shows.
Box Office: Box Office sales begin 45 minutes prior to showtime and is cash or check only.
Adult $15, Senior $12, Senior with Gold Pass $10, Student $10, Student with Activity Pass $8, Children 12 and under $6.