Reviewed by David Spencer
There's a lot of value in trying to rescue the heart of a worthwhile musical from a dated sensibility, but a lot of danger too. The value, of course, is in revitalizing material to which the forward progress of enlightened society has not been kind, the better to appreciate stories and scores that might otherwise be denied further performances in meaningful venues. The danger is in the challenge itself. Almost always, the dated sensibility is the key to why the show was created to begin with, and is inextricably bound to certain story and thematic elements. Thus, underplaying the dated stuff while focusing in on a (tacitly) more contemporary humanism can have the perverse effect of highlighting the stuff you're trying to avoid emphasizing, because avoidance becomes the amplifier—the theatrical equivalent of "not talking about the elephant in the room." Because the big, freaking elephant is there, and everyone knows it.
In 110 in the Shade, the 1963 musicalization of N. Richard Nash's 1954 play The Rainmaker, with a book by Nash and score by Tom Jones (lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music)—currently in revival from the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 under the direction of Lonny Price—the elephant is no less than the central conflict. Set in the Texas Panhandle during a Depression era drought, it has Lizzie Curry (Audra McDonald) returning home (from a teaching job, it is implied) to the ranch run by her dad, H.C. (John Cullum) and two brothers: young, na_ve optimist Jimmy (Bobby Steggert) and older pessimist Noah (Chris Butler). As usual, though, she comes home unattached and with no romantic prospects. Her curse is that she's plain spoken and worse, just plain. Though her family try to encourage her, the looming possibility that she will be forever an "old maid," and without love, is a real one. Even the strong, reserved town sheriff, File (Christopher Innvar), who seems to be interested, is curiously held back.
And then a con man comes to town. Of course he doesn't present himself as a con man, but rather a professional rainmaker. His name is Starbuck (Steve Kazee) and he has his ways. He also has enough insight to see that Lizzie is "really a woman"—i.e. potentially desirable to a man, if she'd only believe in herself—and H.C. knows a good deal when he sees it. He gives Starbuck the $100 fee he asks for creating a downpour. Not because he believes in the conman's ability, but because he's hoping it might buy her the one night of love and happiness she'll ever know.
Okay, so on a number of levels, we're playing with fire. The subject of How to Talk to a Man comes up, plain is a metaphor for physically undesirable and oh kids, when the phrase old maid is first uttered, it almost has the impact of a vicious ethnic slur—just for a moment, nothing that lingers, but the epithet rips through the auditorium like a bolt of serrated lightning, and the audience gasps. And let's not even talk about the tightrope dad walks when he pays out that C-note for his daughter's potential one-night stand. So the production and the performance are at pains to make sure that Lizzie's outspokenness is really the issue, her independent spirit. Only, as written, the two are intertwined, and one is not so easily separated from the other.
Ethnicity is not altogether unrelated either, because those who recognize the name Audra McDonald (and who doesn't?) know she's Afro-American, and as those who recognize the name John Cullum (and who wouldn't?) know, he isn't. There's a concerted effort to make this rainbow casting a function of verisimilitude rather than consciously revisionist thinking, in that one of the brothers is also Afro-American and one is, likewise, not—and in the choral numbers, where mixed relationships are tacitly implied; as well as in the comic romance subplot between younger brother Jimmy (Caucasian) and the impishly coquettish town girl Snookie (the Afro-American Carla Duren). In practice, color-blindness is an altogether welcome notion, and for a musical like 110 in the Shade, even appropriate in the sense that the subject matter crosses ethic barriers, the text doesn't make it an implicit issue, and the physical reality soon gets overtaken by the emotional reality, and once the relationships kick in, the audience buys in, happily turning a color-blind eye to the fact that such things, in such profusion, didn't happen in Texas, not then.
But your awareness still hovers. Not because you're making judgments, but because you recognize it as one more effort to redefine 110 in the Shade in a new millennium context. (The context is even humorously acknowledged when in the song "Raunchy", Lizzie is supposed to sing, in jest, about how she might just abandon her principles to behave like a man-trappin' tease after all—might even peroxide her hair. Because the point will be made in a rhyme line, we've been set up to expect "air," as the rhymed sound, and the word hair is already in our heads before we reach it because of the cadence and context. So Ms. McDonald lets the line trail off without quite putting her mouth around the word and reconsiders, "No, I don't think I'll do that." It gets a laugh that further endears the audience to her [and more on that in a bit]; but it puts the ethnicity issue front and center. Exactly how color blind are we supposed to be, in this universe? Or did we just make a brief pact with the performer, allowing us to parenthetically wink at each other, before again playing along? Once more, it's not the choice to be color blind that's the point here. It's that, inadvertently, we're still being made to notice color.
And then there's Starbuck. In previous stagings (known to me, anyway) he's simply a charismatic cowboy; his exuberance is what sets him off from the more conservative Sheriff File. (In the original play, he was Darren McGavin; on film he was Burt Lancaster; in the musical's original Broadway cast, he was Wagon Train TV star Robert Horton.) But in Lonny Price's vision, in for a penny, in for a hundred bucks—an anachronism of archetype is just as feasible as the anachronism of ethnicity. Steve Kazee appears with long, loose, stringy dark hair and beard, wearing a leather vest, looking for all the world like a Hell's Angel biker. (I'm sure this look actually existed in Depression era Texas—it certainly isn't foreign to fans of Deadwood—but here it's used in a poetic way, it's a singular "fashion statement" not even mildly shared by anyone else onstage, and clearly meant to denote rebellion.)
The big question is, with all these obvious, internal contradictions on the table, how much do they negatively affect the musical?
Surprisingly, not much.
If Mr. Price has made some transparently evident politically correct decisions, he's at least done his best to tease them out of what's inherent in the material rather than layer them on with a trowel. It marks the difference between our being aware and being too-long distracted, and all things considered, the difference is profound, because it allows the show to be moving and the story to take hold despite the contradictions. Not the optimum presentation, but not the worst balance either.
Curiously, though, a less apparently visible attempt to update sensibility hurts more. It involves the new musical treatment of some of the songs. They are lushly and beautifully orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick (the Roundabout has finally allowed him sufficient musicians), but many of Harvey Schmidt's original arrangements (originally orchestrated by Hershey Kay) have been altered, some hugely, both to accommodate a more naturalistic style of musical theatre acting, and to eradicate the telltale indicia of starkly 60s musical theatre vocabulary. But to my ear, this musical recontextualizing has been overdone. For indeed those bypassed era-specific signatures are often as crucial a part of Schmidt's work as his melodies and harmonies—as is his unique way of infusing jazz into the parentheses here and there (his own wink toward what was contemporary to him). And softening the musical edges seems to soften the authentic Texas energy (remember: unique among the musical theatre greats, Schmidt and Jones hail from Texas). This may sound hifalutin, but I mean it on a primary level: it's as if aesthetic truth has been swapped out for a more enlightened psychological truth...and I think the trade may have taken more than it's added. (As I've said on other occasions, I don't often read other critics' reviews before I write mine—no rule about that, just usually works out that way—but I happen to have read Brantley's Times review. Which was lukewarm toward not merely the production, but the show. Which is curious, because only a few years earlier, reviewing a production directed by Eric Schaeffer at Chicago's Signature Theatre, Brantley wrote about 110 in the Shade as an underappreciated gem. One has to wonder; is he being fickle, or is there a reason? Interestingly, Tunick orchestrated both productions; and the answer may partially lie in whether the Roundabout revival cribbed from the Signature orchestrations; or the Signature orchestrations were an altogether different set that more faithfully rendered pure Schmidt.)
Still, 110 in the Shade lives or dies on the strength of the actress playing Lizzie, and with Audra McDonald, this revival boasts the performance of the season. As enchanting an actress as she is a singer, she's one of maybe a half-dozen truly great lyric sopranos to currently work in musical theatre (not all of them famous), who has an ease of technique and a breadth of nuance that can lift sublime material to a level beyond superlatives, and passable material to near-sublimity—and in 110 in the Shade she has to do both, as evidenced by her ability to sell the cutesy-poo, slightly embarrassing "Raunchy" and soar in "Is It Really Me?"
And just when you think you've had enough of John Cullum doing his Southern thing, here he is in a role for which his Southern thing is dead-bang perfect. (It reminds me of seeing Tony Randall play Gallimard in M. Butterfly. He didn't do anything that wasn't quintessential Randall, but the role so bonded with quintessential Randall as to remind you how wonderful those defining characteristics were before they became stale.) As H.C., he's simply iconic, the perfect blend of father figure and Texas sage, all delivered with a magical ease.
For me, Steve Kazee's Starbuck is an interesting experiment that almost works. I'd've embraced the biker-rebel image he conveys more if—to be honest—he could sing better. He carries a tune pleasantly, but unremarkably, and I kept being reminded that this was neither the voice, nor the delivery, of a spellbinder.
Christopher Innvar's File is righter. He has a mellow, down-home baritone and enough presence to make his too-short time with Lizzie at the top of the play still mean something when their relationship has to pick up, with sudden, almost unprepared meaningfulness, near the end.
As the aforementioned brothers, neither Chris Butler nor Bobby Steggert seem related to each other, nor Mr. Cullum and Ms. McDonald; they seem to share neither familial mannerism nor regional accent—but after a while you let yourself find "family" in their earnestness. A similar observation may be made of Carla Duran, whose role, Snookie, is a pert 'n' perky musical theatre archetype that plays against the more naturalistic approach of the production. But she delivers it with such shameless abandon that you simply make allowances.
In fact, maybe that's what the magic's about all around. Imperfections and all, everybody involved with 110 in the Shade at the Roundabout clearly loves it, whatever has or hasn't been done to it, it may have been adjusted debatably, but not distorted; and the objective, whatever the result, has been to make it the best 110 in the Shade it can be. Which shows.
And maybe that's how, sometimes in life, value and danger balance out, so the whole can be much greater than the sum of its parts...