Some musicals never quite get the attention they deserve.
A case in point is “110 in the Shade,” a musical adapted by N. Richard Nash from his play “The Rainmaker.” Originally seen during the 1963-64 Broadway season, it was overshadowed by such blockbusters as “Hello, Dolly!” and “Funny Girl.”
The show ran for 330 performances, and although it didn’t entirely disappear, the musical remains under the radar for many theatregoers. That may change with the Roundabout Theatre Company’s modest yet affecting revival, which opened Wednesday at Broadway’s Studio 54.
Not that “110 in the Shade” could ever be called a blockbuster. It’s an unassuming musical, whose quiet charms slowly draw you in. The show celebrates the blossoming of a lonely, love-starved woman who learns to believe in herself—with a little assistance from a handsome con man.
There’s nothing flashy here, but the emotions are honest and after the insistence of such recent perpetual-motion musicals as “Legally Blonde,” its lack of flash is a relief. Director Lonny Price has deliberately kept everything low-key.
But then, the score by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt of “Fantasticks” fame is gentle, folksy, romantic, and full of heart. And its lead role has the good fortune to be sung by Audra McDonald, a performer who possesses one of the finest voices in the American musical theater.
Lizzie Curry is tailor-made for the glorious McDonald, although she is way too pretty to be described as “plain.” It’s an adjective that gets through around a lot in “110 in the Shade,” even by the menfolk in her life. They include her father (the reliably rustic John Cullum) and two brothers (Chris Butler and Bobby Steggert).
Lizzie has what today would be called “self-esteem” issues. She’s just too darn competent for her own good. And, what’s worse, she speaks her mind, not something that endears her to the male residents of a drought-parched Western town, particularly the sheriff (Christopher Innvar), a man who has his own relationship problems.
Into this rural community strides Starbuck—a name that now draws (caffeinated?) titters from the audience. He promises to bring rain, and along the way, the man romances Lizzie. Steve Kazee, whose powerful voice matches McDonald’s, makes a fine scruffy, sexy interloper.
McDonald, a four-time Tony winner, is as much an actress as she is singer. She knows how to find the truth in songs, whether they are comic—her sassy number here is called “Raunchy”—or heartbreakingly sad like “Old Maidk,” a bitter lament that ends the final act. Schmidt’s often wistful melodies and Jones’ simple, direct lyrics excel in revealing character, and character is what “110 in the Shade” is all about.
A lot of that is due to Nash’s meaty book, which provided juicy acting opportunities in the original 1954 stage version of “The Rainmaker,” for Geraldine Page and Darren McGavin and, two years later, in the movie, which starred Katherine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster, Inga Swanson and Robert Horton (of “Wagon Train” fame) headed to the 1963 cast of the musical.
The Roundabout revival downsizes the musical a bit. The chorus seems a little under populated, which makes choreographer Dan Knechtges’ dances look undernourished. And designer Santo Loquasto’s settings, most prominently a giant orb that suggests the heat of a hot summer day, are minimal.
But McDonald more than makes up for the paucity of production values. She’s a performer who can fill any stage.
The title "110 in the Shade" connotes a scorcher, and plenty of warmth is coming off the stage at Studio 54, where the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of the 1963 show opened last night. Most of the heat radiates from Audra McDonald, who proves once again she's more than a Broadway star - she's an entire constellation.
"110 in the Shade," adapted by N. Richard Nash from his play "The Rainmaker," is a charming romantic gem with song after beautiful song that goes straight to the heart. The chance to hear the score by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt ("The Fantasticks") is a reason to celebrate.
The Depression-era story is set in a Western town. No rain for ages. No romance for "plain" Lizzie, ever. Starbuck, aka the rainmaker, arrives in time to solve these problems.
Director Lonny Price has cast principals and the pared-down ensemble with biracial actors - an inventive choice that works.
McDonald, a four-time Tony winner, brings great depth to Lizzie. Her moving versions of "Simple Little Things" and "Is It Really Me?" are exactly why you go to the theater. All of this at a time when she's mourning the unexpected death of her father.
Steve Kazee, as Starbuck, is pleasant, but lacks the electricity and vocal virility a serial seducer should have. Ironically, Christopher Innvar, as shy sheriff File, comes off as sexier. As Lizzie's dad, John Cullum is, as usual, solid. Chris Butler is aptly sour as Lizzie's brother. Bobby Steggert, her other sib, and Carla Duren, as a flirty girl, are frisky in the duet "Little Red Hat."
The production uses a turn-table to keep the show in motion. It works best when File and Starbuck vye for Lizzie. Otherwise Santo Loquasto's set is too abstract for the sweet and delicate show. Poles for trees? A huge white disc changing colors (sunny orange to sky blue)? A crypt-like lean-to that yawns open from the floor to become Starbuck's wagon?
But Loquasto gets the rain right. Hands-down, "110 in the Shade" has the most joyful and wettest finale on Broadway.
Radiance is a thing called Audra McDonald. To cast a woman born to play Carmen in "Carmen Jones" as a plain Jane of a country gal is creative casting as its dizziest.
Admittedly, it comes off triumphantly in Lonny Price's restaging of "110 in the Shade," which opened last night at the Roundabout Theater Company's Studio 54.
Yet despite the wondrous McDonald, a good supporting cast, Price's intelligent staging (backed by Dan Knechtges' lively choreography and admirably simple designs from Santo Loquasto), "110 in the Shade" remains a cold fish of a musical.
With a book by N. Richard Nash, based on his 1954 play "The Rainmaker," it has music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones (no, not the pop singer), the musical duo that gave us "The Fantasticks."
This 1963 musical isn't fantastic, and never was.
It has the kind of music that always sounds - especially in these handsome orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick - as though it's about to start, and never quite does.
Like his original play, Nash's book is a variant on the Cinderella story.
Lizzie (McDonald), a bright young woman no longer so young, is dooming herself into spinsterhood until Starbuck (a strong-voiced but charismatically challenged Steve Kazee) comes into town offering rain for money.
Along the way, he persuades Lizzie that underneath her self-defeating attitudes and fears lies the beauty of womanhood, and someone who could be loved.
It's a sentimental little tale, dragged out by a sagging story line that has Lizzie's dear old, crusty, understanding Pop (the dear old, crusty, understanding John Cullum), her two brothers, the skeptical Noah (Chris Butler), and the younger, bouncier Jimmy (Bobby Steggart) trying to rope in the town's taciturn single sheriff, File (Christopher Innvar), into marrying her.
It's all as sweet as saccharine stirred into molasses.
As for humor, the biggest laugh now comes from a line that in 1963 might have gotten only lovers of "Moby-Dick" to smile. After confessing that his real name is Smith, the con man continues: "I needed a name that had the whole sky in it. And the power of a man! Star - buck! Now there's a name for you - and it's mine!"
"110 in the Shade" could be dismissed as nothing much more than a weather forecast were it not for the ebullient charm of both Steggart's Jimmy and Carla Duren as Jimmy's girl, Snookie - and, of course, McDonald.
What an artist! But it's not much of a showcase. Now how about "Carmen Jones"?
Is it possible for a performance to be too good? Audra McDonald brings such breadth of skill and depth of feeling to the Roundabout Theater Company revival of “110 in the Shade” that she threatens to burst the seams of this small, homey musical. Ravishing of voice and Olympian of stature, she’s an overwhelming presence in an underwhelming show.
Watching Ms. McDonald in this gentle, threadbare tale of a love-starved spinster in a rain-starved farmland, which opened last night at Studio 54, is like drinking rare Champagne from a plastic cup. Yes, a Baccarat flute would be preferable. On the other hand who’s going to turn down the chance to sample a vintage Cristal?
For what Ms. McDonald makes of Lizzie Curry, an unmarried woman in a household of manly men, is a dazzling case for the musical as a dramatic form that plumbs hearts and minds. She so blurs the lines between spoken and musical expression that one seems like a natural extension of the other.
Singing for Ms. McDonald is just a more emphatic and articulate way of talking, one that’s needed when emotions are so intense they can’t be captured without the texture and shading of melody. When you listen to Ms. McDonald’s Lizzie sing about the ache of loneliness or her disgust for the words “old maid,” you don’t know how she feels; youfeel how she feels. You’re likely to find tears in your eyes by the end of even comic songs.
Nothing else in Lonny Price’s production, , which officially concludes the Broadway season, warrants tears, either of joy or distress. First produced on Broadway in 1963, with songs by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (“The Fantasticks”) and a book by N. Richard Nash (adapted from his play “The Rainmaker”), “110 in the Shade” is a poor man’s “Music Man.”
Like Meredith Willson’s high-stepping blockbuster of 1957, “110” is an all-American love story about a con man who brings sweet relief to the parched life of a small-town virgin. Both trade in a Norman Rockwell vision of the United States. But if “The Music Man” is a John Philip Sousa-style blast of brass, “110” is an Aaron Copland-esque twang of fiddle strings.
The songs in “110” are tuneful, pseudo-rustic and on occasion as cute as buttons on overalls. This is not music that rattles the rafters. On the contrary, it seems to melt away even as it’s being performed, despite the caressing orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick and masterly music direction by Paul Gemignani.
Extolling the pleasures of “simple little things,” to borrow from one of Lizzie’s songs, “110” left critics unawed 44 years ago, though it ran for 330 performances. “There is no danger even a lightning bolt could ignite it,” Howard Taubman wrote in The New York Times.
Well, if Ms. McDonald doesn’t qualify as a lightning bolt, I don’t know who does. But it’s true that while she does provide a blazing center, the temperature of the show around her remains steadily lukewarm. Mr. Price’s direction emphasizes the cuddly aspects of the show in ways that date it more than necessary.
Though Santo Loquasto’s revolving wooden set, overhung by a giant moonlike sphere, has a fairy tale starkness, much of the production feels like a family-oriented romance from the early 1960s, before rock ’n’ roll was king. There are songs about cleaning up the house and playing poker and going on a picnic and about, gosh, how very hot it is.
Within this small and cozy world, Lizzie oversees a household that includes her father, H. C. (the excellent John Cullum), and her brothers, Noah (the stern one, played by Chris Butler) and Jim (the cute one, played by Bobby Steggert). She pines quietly for a man of her own, preferably File (Christopher Innvar), the moody town sheriff.
Her prayers seem destined to go unanswered until a charismatic wanderer named Starbuck (Steve Kazee) shows up, promising to bring rain to the dying fields. Lizzie learns that she is a woman and hence worthy of being loved. And just to make sure she knows it, her father slips Starbuck a hundred bucks in the hopes that he’ll spend the night with her.
Ick. As you can tell, “110” remains family entertainment only for families without feminists. But its patronizing view of its heroine doesn’t keep Ms. McDonald from building a fully authentic character.
She finds revitalizing detail in even shopworn gestures, like fiddling with her buttons to indicate nervousness. And she uncovers a barbed self-awareness in a wistful ballad like “Love, Don’t Turn Away” and the pain in a comic number like “Raunchy.” Yet even the most ambitious of the songs — including the searing nervous breakdown of an aria, “Old Maid” — can’t quite take this complex Lizzie to the levels you know she could ascend to.
Aside from Mr. Cullum, who has a marvelously easy rapport with Ms. McDonald onstage, none of the men in Lizzie’s life seem worthy of her. Part of this may come from miscasting. As Starbuck, the pleasant-voice, round-faced Mr. Kazee, clad in snug black denim, suggests a Boy Scout posing as a biker dude. As the straight-and-narrow File, on the other hand, Mr. Innvar positively smolders. (Role switch, anyone?)
When at last the skies open in “The Rainmaker,” in a stage-drenching climax, Ms. McDonald seems utterly happy and at home. Elemental force meets elemental force. Now that’s a love match.
Audra McDonald’s voice has more moods and colors than most people’s entire personalities.
In “110 in the Shade,” a sweetheart of a revival that ended the Broadway season last night, McDonald bewitches us into forsaking the wattage of reality and believing that she’s the plainest old maid in Texas.
We expect nothing less from this luminous singing actress, who has won four Tony Awards—for “Carousel,” “Master Class,” “Ragtime,” and “A Raisin in the Sun”—which means just about every time she has stepped onto a Broadway stage.
The real surprise is the 1963 musical itself, which N. Richard Nash adapted from “The Rainmaker,” his sturdy fairy tale set during the Depression. It offers a richly melodic score by the “Fantasticks” team of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones. In this revival, the lovely show turns out to be a soft-sell romance with enough charming open-road Americana to counteract its cornball plot and its passé message about the stigma of unmarried women.
Director Lonny Price manages to rush us past the worst aspects of Lizzie’s father (John Cullum in his most endearingly twangy mode) and two brothers, who scheme to “lasso” a husband for her. Instead of stressing Lizzie’s alleged homeliness, Price and McDonald convince us that, in fact, her level-headed intelligence is what’s scaring the menfolk away.
McDonald lets us see desperation without ever looking pathetic. Like LaChanze in “The Color Purple” and Eve Best in “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” McDonald must whip up the passions of a handsome woman who feels ugly inside. Although embarrassed by blatant efforts to marry her off, Lizzie cherishes the depths of her family’s affection for her.
Besides, as we learn from her first song, “Love, Don’t Turn Away,” she fears a gnawling lonliness. In the mock-vamping “Raunchy” (a number with major obnoxious potential), McDonald lets loose with an unaffected lack of inhibition and honest eroticism. She even makes an unmotivated cartwheel look like a spontaneous act of sensuality.
The casting is color-blind, which means that, after we initially wonder about Lizzie’s mixed-race family, we never think about it again. Except for a bizarrely hysteric portrayal of the amorous Snookie (Carla Duren), the ensemble maintains the easygoing grace of its star. In the pivotal role of Starbuck, the con man who promises the make rain for this region enduring a terrible drought, newcomer Steve Kazee is sweet and impressively lyrical. His portrayal seems willful at first, but blossoms with the character, as he coaxes the beauty out of Lizzie.
Christopher Innvar applies his deep, dark baritone to the deep, dark torment of the sheriff, who can’t admit he needs to be loved. Chris Butler makes Lizzie’s stern brother Noah seem less cruel than concerned. Bobby Steggart does a breakout turn as Jim, the supposedly dumb brother with delightful emotional smarts.
Santo Loquasto’s costumes are a bit too spanking clean for a poor Dust Bowl town. But his sets are stirring, simple, and poetic. Dominating the stage is an enormous orb, which changes from blue moon to scorching orange sun under Christopher Akerlind’s lights.
In a tender, almost unbearably poignant scene, Lizzie tells Starbuck about the value of real life over dreams. She practically hugs herself recounting how she sometimes looks at her adoring pop and then forces herself to look closer to notice “little things I never saw in him before…and I want to thank God I took the time to see him real!” Suddenly, we remember that McDonald’s own father recently died in a flight accident—and we see a real pro.
Every genre has its critical darlings, and in musical theater, few inspire more rhapsodic praise than four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald.
So intense is stage pundits' and fans' devotion to this singer/actress that the Roundabout Theatre Company has seen fit to revive a relatively obscure work as a vehicle for her, much as it revived The Apple Tree for Kristin Chenoweth last fall.
110 in the Shade (* *½ out of four), which opened Wednesday at Studio 54, has a hokey, dated book by N. Richard Nash — based on his play, The Rainmaker — and songs by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, better known for their better work on The Fantasticks. It also has a central role that demands a strong, fluid presence.
Strength is not an issue for McDonald, who has an impeccably trained voice and abundant energy. But the role of Lizzie, a plucky wallflower living in the Texas Panhandle, requires qualities that seem less instinctive to her, such as spontaneity and looseness.
In fairness, I've never quite gotten the level of fuss over McDonald. There are numerous leading ladies (Chenoweth among them) whose voices I find prettier in tone and richer in character. McDonald's technique is meticulous, but its relentless precision and operatic vibrato can make her singing sound studied, particularly when the tunes have blues or jazz nuances.
McDonald's acting, too, can seem self-conscious and overeager. Watching her Lizzie, it's difficult to shake the feeling that you're observing a Juilliard-educated pro, rather than a plain Southern girl desperate to find a man.
That's not to say McDonald isn't a dynamic performer, or that she's entirely unconvincing as Lizzie, with whom she clearly shares a strong will and a desire to please. She gets endearing support, too, from a cast that seems intent on milking this trifle for all its sentimental appeal. The ever-reliable John Cullum is especially fine, lending grit and heart as Lizzie's father.
He earned a hearty reception at a recent preview, but not quite the thunderous standing ovation that greeted McDonald. Good for her — I would never begrudge theater a star, even one I can't wholeheartedly endorse.
The luminous Audra McDonald is probably nobody's idea of a plain-Jane spinster, and even less likely to pass for one when she opens her mouth to release that full-bodied soprano. So it's a testament to her gifts that McDonald's vibrant characterization in such a role -- as spirited, smart and affecting as her luxuriant vocals -- gives "110 in the Shade" a touching verismo in the midst of Santo Loquasto's stylized design. Ambling along for much of the time like a low-rent "Oklahoma," this 1963 musical version of "The Rainmaker" gets by on its charming score, old-fashioned romantic heart and, most of all, its magnetic lead, but the temperature rarely rises above that of a mild spring day.
Faithfully adapted by N. Richard Nash from his 1954 play (filmed by Paramount with Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn), the show is a fondly regarded midlevel entry in the American musical theater canon whose fame couldn't match that of composing team Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's earlier and somewhat more precious Off Broadway hit, "The Fantasticks."
While "110" also was overshadowed by "Funny Girl" and "Hello, Dolly," two far showier leading-lady vehicles that premiered the same season, the tuner is nonetheless a sturdy showcase for a talented female star. As such, the revival represents a tidy segue for Roundabout from its recent "The Apple Tree," which existed solely for Kristin Chenoweth the same way this production is built around the versatile McDonald, whose last Broadway musical role was in 1999's "Marie Christine."
Loquasto's striking design -- dominated by a massive overhanging disc that all but fills the Studio 54 stage and serves as both the sun and the moon, washed by the countless color variations of Christopher Akerlind's warm lighting -- might give the initial impression that a more inventive sensibility were being brought to the rustic romance. But Lonny Price's fairly pedestrian production serves up the material largely as is, despite the innovation of color-blind casting in a show set in the Depression-era Texas Panhandle.
There's also a slight shift in character focus to explain the failure of ranch girl Lizzie Curry (McDonald) to land a husband, playing down her supposed homeliness and instead emphasizing her feisty, outspoken intelligence.
However, Lizzie is no shrew waiting to be tamed. She desperately yearns to be married, which McDonald conveys with aching vulnerability in the song "Love Don't Turn Away." Her sweet-natured, widowed father, H.C. (John Cullum), and doting brothers, Noah (Chris Butler) and Jimmy (Bobby Steggert), are equally anxious to see her hitched and happy. Prime target for their matchmaking endeavors is town sheriff File (Christopher Innvar), a brooding loner burned by love when his wife walked out on him.
A more unexpected candidate emerges when wandering conman Starbuck (Steve Kazee) breezes into town, promising to quench Lizzie's parched heart and end the drought gripping the community by miraculously producing rain for a $100 fee.
Particularly in the first act, Price could lean harder on the accelerator, but the director makes good use of the stage's central revolve to keep things in motion. This is not the most dynamic of stories, its romantic triangle seeming to form only minutes before Lizzie makes her choice, but the appeal of Nash's book and of Jones and Schmidt's correspondingly mellow songs is the gentle, low-key way they express real feelings.
Lizzie's need for emotional fulfillment, Starbuck's advocacy of the limitless power of dreaming and File's self-imprisoning heartache all are sweetly rendered in a show that grows more engaging after a plodding start. And as much as it could seem a positive-thinking cliche, Starbuck's mission to teach Lizzie to see herself as beautiful has the air of an understated fairy tale unfolding under an enchanted starry sky -- "Everything beautiful happens at night," sing Lizzie and the townsfolk.
The musical is laced with well crafted songs that enhance and advance the narrative, the best of them entrusted to a most capable musical storyteller in McDonald. She vamps playfully through "Raunchy," imagining herself the kind of flirtatious woman who has no trouble attracting men; sings wistfully of her unadorned desires in "Simple Little Things"; exchanges tentative overtures of love with Innvar's File in "A Man and a Woman"; angrily exposes her fear while cranking up her soprano into full dramatic throttle in "Old Maid"; and all but explodes with the girlish joy of self-discovery and unleashed emotion in "Is It Really Me?"
Music director Paul Gemignani and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick compensate for the reduced ranks of musicians and cast (the town's July Fourth picnic looks distinctly underpopulated) by highlighting the score's lightness and airiness.
Ensemble songs "Another Hot Day" and its corresponding "The Rain Song" provide the elemental echo for the story's romantic longing. Comedy numbers "You're Not Fooling Me" and "Poker Polka" are hokey and disposable. but "Little Red Hat" is a frisky delight, performed with brio by the winning Steggert and Carla Duren as Jimmy's flighty girlfriend Snookie. The song is also one of the rare occasions when choreographer Dan Knechtges' work is allowed to develop.
In addition to Steggert, the supporting cast has an asset in the dependable Cullum, who makes a steadfast, nurturing figure of Lizzie's father. Tall, lean and handsome in a throwback '50s mold, Innvar has a nice unassuming stage presence that befits a character who shrinks from public declarations for most of the action.
While his vocals are pleasing, Kazee is a less ideal match for seductive dreamweaver Starbuck. In fairness, the fault may lie not so much with the actor as with whoever decided to give him sleazy villain hair and outfit him (Loquasto also did the otherwise efficient costumes) like a Castro cowboy in soccer mom jeans. He also gets stuck with the dud song "Melisande," its cloying whimsy representative of the less durable aspects of Jones and Schmidt's work.
But even with two leading men competing for her attention and ours, this is McDonald's show all the way, and she shines.