110 in the Shade
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
May 12, 2007
Roundabout Theatre Company's smashing new revival of the Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones musical, 110 in the Shade, is the kind of show Broadway does better than anyone else. This glorious production, rife with memorable tunes from one of musical theatre's greatest songwriting teams, touches both the heart and soul, tugs at the heartstrings, and leaves one breathless with wonderment. Led by a bona fide star performance from the celestial Audra McDonald and magnificent direction by Lonny Price, 110 in the Shade is hands down the best and most exciting Broadway production I've seen all season.
Adapted from N. Richard Nash's popular play, The Rainmaker, 110 in the Shade tells the story of plain Lizzie Curry, a single homemaker on the verge of spinsterhood. Her wit and intelligence (not to mention her unchecked penchant for speaking her mind) keep suitors at bay, so she tends house for her father, H.C., and two brothers, Noah and Jimmy. The only man in their small Texas Panhandle town who'd have Lizzie—File, the local sheriff—is still smarting from his wife walking out on him years earlier. But, Lizzie does her best to remain optimistic about finding a husband, even though everyone hears the proverbial clock ticking on what's left of her chances.
The town is also caught in the middle of a deadly drought, which is taking its toll on the local farmers and their livestock. Enter Bill Starbuck, a charismatic nomad who claims he can bring rain—for a price. Lizzie and Noah are immediately suspicious (and perhaps rightly so: Starbuck may be the very same con man File is on the lookout for), but H.C. is sold on the vibrant stranger's sales pitch and pays his fee. Starbuck has 24 hours and he gets right to work—not just on the rain, but on Lizzie, too. Will she be swayed by this charming rogue? Will File ever step up and be a man? And, can Starbuck really make it rain? 110 in the Shade plunges the audience into two-and-a-half hours of sheer theatrical bliss answering these questions.
It's rare that a show speaks so clearly to everyone involved, but it happens here. The entire company is on the same page from the get-go, allowing a total synthesis of production elements—acting, direction, design—that is astonishing. Price combines everything so smoothly that 110 in the Shade looks as if it's just "happening" before our eyes all on its own.
The stakes are also very high for everyone throughout. Whether or not Lizzie finds a husband, or any kind of romantic happiness at all, is a matter of life or death for all the characters. So much so that some (H.C.) are willing to push her into the arms of a potential criminal, while others (Noah) are brutally honest with her about her prospects to the point of cruelty. All the while, Lizzie stands in the middle of this emotional storm with dignity, hoping against hope that love will finally come her way.
McDonald's performance as Lizzie is something of a miracle. As much as there is written about her gorgeous singing voice, the thing that struck me most about her was the force and depth of her acting chops. Holy cow, can this woman act! The glamorous McDonald instantly transforms into plain ol' Lizzie by using carefully orchestrated body language, gestures, and emotional transitions. You believe her pain, her anxiety, her eagerness, everything. She even pulls off Lizzie's comedic making-fun-of-herself number, "Raunchy," with commanding ease. But, when she hits 110 in the Shade's emotional high points—like the Act I closer, "Old Maid," in which she pleads to the heavens, "Oh God, don't let me live and die alone!"—your eyes will tear up and you will feel it right in your guts.
Veteran John Cullum matches McDonald in every department, showing audiences why he's still a Broadway star after more than 40 years. He has a confident ease on stage that only comes with hard-earned experience, and this quality suits H.C. perfectly. He and McDonald make an endearing and believable father-daughter pair.
Chris Butler and Bobby Steggert provide expert oil-and-water support as Noah and Jimmy. Christopher Innvar evokes maximum empathy with his stirring portrayal of the laconic File. And relative newcomer Steve Kazee blows the roof off the joint with his rock star performance as Starbuck. Sporting long flowing locks, buff biceps, and more can-do positivity than Anthony Robbins, it's easy to see why people put their faith in this guy. Not to mention that Starbuck's sales pitch, a rousing number called "The Rain Song," is more like a revival tent meeting. The entire cast is just superb in every way, and I cannot praise them enough.
As you can see, I could go on and on about this show. But, instead, I'll just let you go see it. 110 in the Shade gives audiences their money's worth, and a whole lot more. It will hit you squarely in both the gut and the heart, and leave you eager to shout with joy from the rooftops that mainstream theatre can still move and shake one this deeply and effectively.