Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
110 in the Shade tells the story of Lizzie Curry, a single woman living on a ranch with her father and two brothers in a Southwestern American town in the 1930s. Lizzie seems destined for a life as an old maid, despite potential feelings for local sheriff File. The arrival of a con man named Starbuck, who claims to be able to bring rain to the drought-stricken area, spurs everyone in town to examine themselves and others, especially Lizzie.
The musical is based on the 1954 N. Richard Nash play The Rainmaker. Nash also supplied the musical's book, which is told at a deliberate pace, but is efficient and deceptively complex. There are sufficient bits of humor throughout, and the main characters are fully realized and three-dimensional.
The score by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones was their first Broadway endeavor following the success of The Fantasticks Off-Broadway. The duo is said to have composed over 100 songs while creating the show, but fewer than twenty ended up in the final product. (If you want to hear some of the best cut songs, find Lost in Boston, Lost in Boston III, and Lost in Boston IV on CD.) The songs that did make the final cut are excellent ones. There are jaunty group numbers, as well as slower, almost hypnotic tunes, always paired with well-suited, descriptive lyrics. The songs perfectly capture the atmosphere and personality of the scenes. Song highlights include the opening "Another Hot Day," the quick paced "Lizzie's Coming Home," performed by her dad and brothers, "Evenin' Star," and "Little Red Hat" (a show-stopping number for Jim and Snookie). For the role of Lizzie, they've provided a number of great songs: "Love, Don't Turn Away," "Raunchy," "Old Maid," and "Simple Little Things" among others. Schmidt and Jones would go on to write a number of other shows together, including I Do! I Do! , Celebration, and the unreleased masterpiece (which will remain unreleased due to a rights issue) Grover's Corners, a brilliant musicalization of Our Town).
The CCM production features excellent performances from its lead performers and is solidly performed all around. As Lizzie, Brianna Barnes sings the challenging score exquisitely, mixing in a more operatic voice with a more typical Broadway sound appropriately. She very effectively uses her eyes, facial expressions, and body language to convey emotion, and acts the role in a manner to display the many sides of this complex character: forthright, no-nonsense, independent, unsure, self-conscious. John Battagliese brings energy and a controlled level of flashy exuberance as the con man rainmaker Starbuck, reminiscent of Harold Hill in The Music Man. He provides easygoing, beautiful singing and a commanding stage presence. Ben Biggers aptly captures the measured, cautious, and broken nature of File, and brings a strong singing voice which is used to great effect.
In supporting roles, Alec Cohen displays brilliant comic timing and delivery as Jim, Lizzie's dim-witted brother, and Chris Collins-Pisano is appropriately concerned and thoughtful as her father H.C. The role of Noah is fairly one note, but Erik Hernandez does well as the stern, blunt big brother. Michelle Coben is funny, cute, and, necessarily, overly perky as Snookie. The group of 22 cast members does well with the material, displays a wealth of talent, and provides some lovely choral work together.
Director/choreographer Vince DeGeorge starts the proceedings with an educational pre-show speech about the piece. His work within the show is straightforward and appropriate in tone and pace. DeGeorge infuses action into a story which could easily be presented in a stagnant fashion, and the character interactions and emotions of the piece are clearly communicated. Music director Steve Goers and Danny White provide spirited playing of a splendid two-piano accompaniment.
In this black-box studio setting, the technical aspects are scaled down, but still professionally rendered. Director DeGeorge provides a scenic design highlighted by layered, draped strips of fabric at the back of the performance space, and a few other props which are used effectively. The lighting by Andrew P. Diamond helps to convey the time of day (the show takes place over one 24-hour period) and the heat associated with the story. The costumes by Tommy Cobau and Hayley King are in an apt color scheme of browns, tans, whites, and blues, befitting the story. However, there's not enough variation within the costumes, and they don't provide a costume change for Lizzie, despite the script specifically calling for one.
110 in the Shade is rarely produced and worthy of inclusion on theatergoers' bucket list of shows to see. The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music's production is a praiseworthy one, with strong direction and first-rate performances, as has become expected from the program. The musical played at CCM through April 11, 2015.
-- Scott Cain