Audra McDonald heats up 110 Degrees in the Shade.
A countrified Cinderella cleans up well
By Scott Harrah
There is just one reason why audiences should see this revival of the 1963 musical based on N. Richard Nashs The Rainmaker, with songs by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (the duo that brought us the timeless classic The Fantasticks): The outstanding performances of stage veterans Audra McDonald and John Cullum. The four-time Tony winner McDonald has an ethereal voice and a strong stage presence that far outshines anything in this forgettable musical about a farm family in the drought-ravaged Texas Panhandle circa 1936. Hers is a voice so beautifully haunting and rich in coloratura and vibrato that she steals nearly every scene when she starts to sing. She could read and sing aloud names from the Manhattan phone book and make it all sound like poetry.
The storys dated, pre-feminist notions about women becoming old maids if they dont marry by a certain age may seem silly to 21st century audiences, but McDonald, playing the frumpy sister Lizzie Curry in an all-male household, quickly makes one forget what a cultural anachronism this show might be. With such songs as Love, Dont Turn Away and act ones powerful closing number Old Maid, McDonald conveys a wistful sense of longing and heartbreak that gives the show the emotional intensity it needs to sustain our compassion for Lizzies empty, unfulfilling life. McDonald, who in real-life is certainly no ugly duckling, is often clad in unflatteringly big, clunky farm house-frau dresses, and sports a wig that she wears pulled up schoolmarm-style throughout most of the show, and this helps us believe that shes portraying a plain Jane who cant find the right man and yearns to blossom into a Southwestern version of Cinderella.
As Lizzies beloved father H.C., John Cullums characterization is amazingly executed and three-dimensional, adding the right amount of fatherly concern and empathy to the character as he tries to fix her up with the towns eligible-bachelor sheriff, File (Christopher Innvar), a man who is skeptical about dating women and is so ashamed of being divorced that he lies and claims to be a widower. Lizzies brothers, Noah (Chris Butler) and Jim (Bobby Steggert), are protective of her but would like to see her find someone.
Much of the story focuses on what happens when a rainmaker named Starbuck (Steve Kazee) comes to town and promises to make it rain on the dry, water-starved Texas plains in exchange for $100. Although most people, especially Noah, think Starbuck is a charlatan, H.C. coughs up the cash, hoping the guy will develop romantic designs for Lizzie. Her father is convinced that Starbuck is some sort of wizard who can both bring the town badly needed rain and brighten the life of his love-starved daughter simultaneously.
Kazee certainly has a powerful and melodic voice, but with his long, stringy hair, dirty jeans and skittish demeanor, he seems more like a lost hippie than a hunky leading man who could make Lizzies dreams finally come true. Lizzies vital romantic scene with Starbuck is devoid of any real chemistry or proverbial sparks because they simply do not appear to be much of a match, and this seriously damages the narratives plausibility.
Questionable casting is not the only flaw in the show. One of the major problems with 110 in the Shade is Santo Loquastos high-tech set, complete with a revolving stage and yes, real rain that sprays the cast in the shows finale. A dome-like sun hovers above the stage, but it seems more stylized than realistic, and it is difficult to imagine that we are seeing something set in dust-bowl era Texas. The rustic country set of Broadways current revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten, a show set in Connecticut, seems more like an authentic Great Plains set than the one in 110 in the Shade. Even with a revolving stage, a glossy fake sun and a rain machine, however, 110 in the Shade is still a rather lackluster show 44 years after it was originally produced.
Fortunately, the flawless Audra McDonald manages to hold the paper-thin storyline together with her extraordinary talent, generating most of the excitement and emotional heat in the otherwise lukewarm 110 in the Shade.