You’ve probably seen or heard of actress Ashley Argota in at least some capacity. The personable performer has had recurring comedic roles on TV for several years, including on “The Fosters.” “True Jackson, VP,” and “Lab Rats” to name a few. Argota has similarly made a name for herself on stage, bowling over audiences with her powerful singing voice while touring in “The Lion King,” competing at New York’s Apollo Theater, and entertaining ebullient crowds at Rockwell Table and Stage in Los Angeles.
She is now looking forward to another stage excursion, this one being less of a romp and more of a journey where she will sing and highlight her dramatic ability in the down-home 2001 Off Broadway musical, “The Spitfire Grill,” which is based on the 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff, and is adapted by James Valcq and Fred Alley, who also penned the music and lyrics. The upcoming production is directed by Dimitri Toscas and is scheduled to run at Burbank’s Garry Marshall Theatre from July 10th through August 11th.
As for the premise, “The Spitfire Grill” transpires in the placid countryside of Gilead, Wisconsin, and is a commentary on hope and the American Dream. The catalyst that gets the plot going is when a spirited parolee named Percy (Rachel Sarah Mount) visits the area and happens upon the only place to dine in town, the Spitfire Grill, which is owned by an irritable widow, Hannah (Sarah Saviano). Percy comes on board to assist in the kitchen, as does Shelby (Ashley Argota), who is known as a great cook. The grill is for sale, but with no offers, Percy pitches Hannah the idea that it be raffled off to those who pay a contest entry fee of $100 and write the best essay on why they would want to own the restaurant. As the friendship between Hannah, Percy, and Shelby develops, it is met by the resistance of the townsfolk (e.g., Effy, the postmistress and town meddler, who is played by Linda Kerns) as well as revelations from the main characters’ past.
If you think this sounds favorably similar to “Waitress,” you’d be right, and it was in fact how Toscas first explained the story to Ashley Argota, who recently spoke with LAexcites about the “The Spitfire Grill” and her career in entertainment.
What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned throughout your career in entertainment up until now? Most challenging role so far?
What I’ve learned is that it’s okay to stand up for yourself, and doing so doesn’t make you a jerk. I was afraid it would make me a diva, but I’ve learned that it’s good to have an opinion.
The most challenging role I’ve had is as Lou in ‘The Fosters,’ which was a departure from the multicam sitcom shows I was doing. It was also the first time I was singing on TV and I was super nervous and terrified when I started, but the cast and crew made me feel so welcomed.
You have a well-earned reputation as a great singer, particularly in musicals. What is your vocal preparation like before a performance?
It’s interesting that you say that, because even though I started singing since I was a baby, I’ve probably become more known for my acting roles. I’ve always been a singer first, though, and I’m grateful to Rockwell Table and Stage for the great opportunity to sing. And being able to do musical theatre allows me to go back to my roots.
As far as vocal prep, I’ve gotten stricter about it over the years. I’ve noticed that my voice tires rather quickly. Before shows, I now warm up for about an hour using the MyPurMist steamer and I even stretch my body. I also have a couple concoctions that I drink – one is with honey locust syrup and hot water and another is with hot water, apple cider vinegar, honey, and cayenne pepper.
When the show is over, I don’t stay after for very long; I go straight home to rest my voice. Talking after shows, I had discovered, would really hurt my voice and I realized I should probably stop doing that [laughs]. I used to be the kind of person who could step into a room and sing without warming up, but my vocal cords don’t like that very much [laughs].
What’s the biggest difference between working on a TV/film set versus performing on stage?
When you perform on stage, you only have one chance to get it right. With TV, [if you mess up], it goes to the blooper reel and then they choose the best take of many that you’ve done. The rehearsal in theatre, especially musical theatre, has taught me a lot of discipline, and helps me hit my mark.
You’ve done a lot of TV comedy and you’ve also starred in several musical parodies at Rockwell Table & Stage. What was the driving force behind taking on a more dramatic role in “The Spitfire Grill”?
I love doing dramatic roles. I am more well-known for doing comedy, but I love drama. I did ‘Romeo & Juliet: Love is a Battlefield’ (at Rockwell Table and Stage), but I hadn’t done a drama in quite some time. When I do comedies, I miss dramatic roles, but the opposite is also totally true.
How did “The Spitfire Grill” come to your attention?
I was told about the audition months ago, but I had a stomach flu and I told Dimitri (the director) that I shouldn’t be around other humans [laughs]. Then, the night before the second round of auditions, he asked me to come in and I had less than 12 hours to learn the sides along with Shelby’s song, and I just winged it [laughs].
Tell us about your character Shelby?
Shelby lives in a small town in Wisconsin and becomes best friends with Percy (Rachel Sarah Mount). She’s shy with big dreams and wants to do incredible things, which is something I can identify with having grown up in a smaller city like Redlands, CA. In fact, I didn’t move out to LA until four years ago, hoping to maintain that separation between home and work. But between having to wake up every day at 4:30 am, and the lack of sleep, I finally decided to come out to LA [laughs].
What has the rehearsal process been like and have there been new revelations about your character that you’ve discovered? Perhaps this may have impacted how you’ve decided to portray the part over time?
We started rehearsal about a month ago and I missed a ton in the beginning as I was doing a cabaret called ‘It Takes Three’ (with Garrett Clayton and Desi Dennis-Dylan). I was also finishing the parody of ‘Ten Things I Hate About You’ at Rockwell.
In the beginning we did musical rehearsals; everyone but me and Rachel Sarah Mount play their own instruments on stage. I learned how to portray my character, and it was very tough to miss some of those days, but they’ve been supportive and I’m all caught up now.
With the roles I play, I usually have a general idea and then I’ll find little things that, when combined with working in a space with other performers, inform what I do. Without giving too much away, there are scenes that Shelby has with Caleb (Shelby’s husband) that made me tweak a few things. Their relationship is strained, as Caleb does things to her that are wrong, and I adjusted my portrayal so that the audience better understands that something is not quite how it should be.
Is the director Dimitri Toscas hands-on with his cast, does he give a lot of freedom, or is it a balance with him?
He definitely has that balance. He gives you the gist of what he wants, and he allows us to feel it out and guide us along with his vision. It’s very much a collaboration and it’s been very fulfilling.
What are you doing after this?
I’m going to enjoy doing ‘The Spitfire Grill,’ and then I’ll probably be touring in ‘It Takes Three’ on the East Coast.
For more details about “The Spitfire Grill” at the Garry Marshall Theatre, please visit garrymarshalltheatre.org/the-spitfire-grill
And for more information about Ashley Argota, visit ashleyargotaofficial.com