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A CurtainUp Review
110 in the Shade
By Elyse Sommer
Eight years have gone by and Lizzie is on Broadway again, and yes, this time she sings —as do her brothers and father, the sheriff who's as inept at romance as she is, and the handsome flim-flam man who for $100 promises to bring rain to the drought parched Texas town where the story takes place.
While its first and only Broadway production in 1963 had a respectable run (330 performances), and the score won it a place in that musical genre labeled as a small gems, 110 in the Shade always suffered from comparisons to The Music Man and had the misfortune of opening t at the same time as showier leading lady vehicles like Hello Dolly and Funny Girl.
So why bring back a musical that was never a major hit, with a book about an old maid (a term that the feminist movement made as obsolete as tight corsets)? The answer is, of course, the four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald. Hardly someone you think of as a Plain Jane or wallflower.
As Kristen Chenoweth was the impetus for the most recent Roundabout musical revival at Studio 54 (The Apple Tree), so McDonald's star power led to the second coming for 110 in the Shade. It was a chance to bring the talented actress back to Broadway.
Interestingly, it doesn't matter that McDonald is as attractive as she is talented. She's a good enough actress so that, aided by a no-nonsense spinsterish hairdo and a no-frills best dress, she can make a convincing case for Lizzie Curry's single status being more attributable to her being plain looking than insistently plain spoken. (In addition to three Tonys for musical roles—Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime— she won a fourth for Raisin in the Sun, a straight drama.)
McDonald's gorgeous, classically trained voice brings a welcome warmth and shading to Schmidt's lovely score. Her acting skills overcome the problem of a heroine who could easily be too dated to appeal to modern audiences.
While McDonald is the big box office draw, she has plenty of fine support, most notably from John Cullum who is unfailingly splendid whether in plays or musical, whether portraying a villain (as in Urinetown and Sin, A Cardinal Deposed) or an endearing character like Lizzie's father. His H.C. Curry's touching efforts to help his beloved child find the happiness that's eluded her make him a dream dad and perfect co-star.
While Steve Kazee's name is above the title with McDonald and Cullum's, his Starbuck somehow lacks the dark hued, mystery tinged electricity of a Burt Lancaster (the Starbuck of the 1956 film version of The Rainmaker, or even Tommy Lee Jones of the 1982 TV version). The darkly handsome Christopher Innvar, who plays the emotionally handcuffed Sheriff File, would probably make a more dashing Lancaster type Starbuck. That said, however, Kazee is attractive, likeable and sings well, and Innvar does a terrific job as a reluctant but inevitably eager and passionate suitor. Somewhat more okay than outstanding are Chris Butler as Lizzie's pragmatic older brother Noah, and Bobby Steggert as cute and not too smart kid brother Jimmy. Carla Duren's Snookie as Jimmy's giggly sweetheart plays silliness with such a vengeance that it tends to be annoying.
With the musical's book written by Rainmaker author Nash, it's hampered by the same pacing problem as his play. The first act is too long and with Nash apparently loathe to part with his original text, 110 in the Shade is talky enough to at times feel like a play with music. Still, the two and a half hours are stuffed with a variety of wonderful melodies that include McDonald's show-stopping "Raunchy", the exquisite "Everything Beautiful Happens At Night" which opens Act II , and the bracing verbal duel between Kazee's Starbuck and Innvar's File. Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations and Paul Gemignani 's orchestra insure that the songs soar and Tom Jones' lyrics can be clearly understood.
Lonny Price's staging, like Don Knechtges's choreography, has a plain John and plainJane simplicity that includes a versatile revolving stage to keep the performers moving around, a giant disk lit by Christopher Aerlund to evoke the changing hours and weather — and for the one really spectacular touch, a cloud burst to go with the concluding reprise of "Rain Song."
Sheriff File almost allows pride and inhibitions to keep him from pleading "Don't Go." But I hope you don't interpret my comments about this production's imperfections as a "Don't Go." With Audra McDonald as the best Lizzie you'll ever see, this 110 in the Shade is a "Do Go".
The Rainmaker in Williamstown and on Broadway
110 in the Shade - Los Angeles production
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide