Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The show's book was written by N. Richard Nash, based on his 1954 play The Rainmaker which became a successful 1956 movie starring Katharine Hepburn (who earned an Oscar nomination) and Burt Lancaster. As good as all of that work was, the years from 1954 to 1963 pre-dated popular consciousness about the boundaries confining women, when marriage was the only legitimate way for a woman to be considered whole.
I have long admired 110 in the Shade's score, with music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones, the duo's follow up to their phenomenally successful Off-Broadway show, The Fantasticks. A 2007 revival on Broadway yielded an original cast album with stars Audra McDonald and Steve Kazee (a Tony winner for Once), and offers an even richer listening experience than the 1963 cast album, with stars Inga Swenson and Robert Horton (direct from his heartthrob role in the TV series "Wagon Train").
The setting is 1936, in a small town in the American Southwest caught in the grip of a major drought. Crops are failing and cattle are shriveling up. As the show opens, the town's sheriff, File, leads the populace in the scene-setting "Gonna Be Another Hot Day." However, the Curry family has other matters on their mind. Twenty-something Lizzie Curry is returning from a stay in a nearby town, arranged with hopes that she would bring back a husband, but that failed to happen. Lizzie is not like other girls in town, who flirt and play up their looks. She is smart and knows it. She cannot bring herself to make foolish chatter and put a man on a pedestal above her. Moreover, she is not a beauty. She is plain. That word is repeated over and over as if it were the greatest curse a woman could bear.
Lizzie's father, rancher A. C. Curry, and her two brothersthe older Noah, who manages the ranch, and the younger Jimmy, a romanticdon't waste much time before they bring up File. The sheriff had moved to their town as a widower, and Lizzie seemed to have fond feelings for him. She resists their efforts to play matchmaker but eventually gives in, revealing her hopes in the wistful "Love, Don't Turn Away," only to be crushed when File rejects their invitation to join them at the town picnic.
However, another man does show up at the picnic, a stranger called Starbuck who claims to be a rainmaker. For $100 (in advance) he can make rain, convincing the town of his prowess in the pulsating "Rain Song." Everyone but practical Noah and cynical Lizzie are won over, and A.C. himself puts up the $100. Lizzie and Starbuck exchange accusations ("You're Not Foolin' Me"). Through the rest of the day and the night, Lizzie, Starbuck and File approach and repel one another, upending all three of their lives and forcing Lizzie to make the biggest decision of her life. And all the while, the question: will there be rain?
The story is told through a well-crafted book and wonderful songs, including the honky-tonk "Raunchy," in which Lizzie playfully pretends to be an "easy" woman; "A Man and a Woman," which offers hope for a connection between Lizzie and File after all; "Melisande," Starbuck's outlandish story intended to build Lizzie's pride in herself; "Is It Really Me?," sung by Lizzie and Starbuck as love begins to stir, and the brutal "Old Maid," which closes act one as Lizzie agonizes over her future.
The score is especially lovely in the context of the show. It has shades of Rodgers and Hammerstein in drawing on the sound and sentiments of the show's locale, and conveying feelings that could not believably be expressed in text. The second act opener, "Everything Beautiful Happens at Night," is a gentle waltz sung and danced by the ensemble, signifying a transition from the events of the day, under the sun's harsh glare, to the cooler air and unseen possibilities hidden by the shadows of night. The only number that feels wanting is "Little Red Hat," a comic piece for younger brother Jimmy and Snookie, a girl who excels at the flirty affectations that are anathema to Lizzie. It's cute enough and lightens the serious second act, but lacks the heart found in rest of the score.
For 110 in the Shade to really work requires strong actors in the roles of Lizzie, Starbuck and File. Theatre in the Round struck gold with two out of three. As Lizzie, Emily Jabas is completely convincing both in her cynicism and her repressed yearning, has good comic timing, and her beautiful voice does justice to the richness and range of songs for the character. Rodolfo Nieto is a splendid Starbuck, sleek and seductive as he wins over the crowd, with a surprising sensitivity as well, and a booming voice that brings "Rain Song" and "Melisande" to glorious life. Michael Postle is competent and sings sweetly as File, but never projects the strained passion of his feelings or lets loose when he needs to. Michael Dufault as H.C. and Jared Mogen as Noah both do fine work, and Andrew Newman is especially a joy to watch as Jimmy, brimming with youthful energy and misguided certainty. Grace Chermak may be a bit too much the dim-wit as Snookie, though that is what the character is supposed to represent.
Director Paul Reyburn keeps the show moving smoothly, and guides the tone from the bright glare of day to the possibilities of night. Shannon Roberg's choreography is simple but effective, most impressive in "Rain Song." The physical production makes good use of Theatre in the Round's performing space, with the star pattern of a country quilt in the center of the floor, the rest of the floor painted to look like cracked, parched earth. Wooden benches unfold as picnic tables to create all of the settings. The lighting design provides twinkling stars for the second act, sound design offers the cries of birds and (spoiler alert) falling rain. The biggest disappointment is the band. Music director Angela May plays lovely piano and there are fine work by the percussionist, but the trumpet and clarinet players both squeaked numerous times at the performance I attended and were off key now and then. I feel fortunate to have arrived already knowing the glories of Schmidt and Jones' score, as I am not sure I would have had that appreciation based solely on the performance of this band.
Now that I have seen it, I can offer my view that 110 in the Shade is a good show, deserving of more recognition than it received (no doubt, its legacy was hampered by the fact that soon after it opened came two juggernautsHello, Dolly! and Funny Girl.) There is still the issue of Lizzie needing to find a man in order to be a complete woman. Of course, that view was right at home in its era, but absolutely not today. We can accept it as an accurate view of the past and be grateful for the progress that has been made. Moreover, Lizzie is presented as a strong woman, a smart woman, and a principled woman who is unwilling to compromise on those qualities to catch a man. If that doomed her to becoming an "old maid"and, thankfully, that term is no longer in regular useshe might live with disappointment in life, but she would maintain her integrity. Perhaps in 1963 (or 1954, when Nash's The Rainmaker premiered) a character like Lizzie was an important step in raising awareness of women's roles in society. In any case, the beautiful music, literate script, and charming characters make 110 in the Shade a work of musical theater worth preserving and revisiting.
110 in the Shade continues at Theatre in the Round, through May 21, 2017. 245 Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis, MN, 55454. Tickets: $24.00, Seniors (62+) $20.00, Students with ID $20.00. Discounts valid for Friday and Sunday performances only. For tickets call 612-333-3010 or go to TheatreintheRound.org.
Music: Harvey Schmidt; Lyrics: Tom Jones; Book N. Richard Nash, based on his play, The Rainmaker; Director: Paul Reyburn; Musical Director/Conductor: Angela May; Choreographer: Shannon Roberg; Scenic Design: Scott Gilbert and Corinna Troth; Costume Design: Carolann Winther; Lighting Design: Andrew C. Kedl; Sound Design: Abe Gabor; Props Design: Roxanne Miller; Stage Manager: Toni Solie; Assistant Stage Manager: Naomi Finsaas.
Cast: Grace Chermak (Snookie Updegraff), Michael Dufault (H.C. Curry), Emily Jabas (Lizzie Curry), Jared Mogen (Noah Curry), Andrew Newman (Jimmy Curry), Rodolfo Nieto (Starbuck), Michael Postle (File).