Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 9, 2007
110 in the Shade Book by N. Richard Nash. Music by Harvey Schmidt. Lyrics by Tom Jones. Based on a play by N. Richard Nash. Directed by Lonny Price. Choreographed by Dan Knechtges. Music Direction by Paul Gemignani. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Set and costume design by Santo Loquasto. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Audra McDonald, John Cullum, Steve Kazee, Chris Butler, Carla Duren, Christopher Innvar, Bobby Steggert, Elisa Van Duyne, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Valisia Leake Little, Darius Nichols, Mamie Parris, Devin Richards, Michael Scott, Will Swenson, Matt Wall, Betsy Wolfe.
Despite what your eyes might insist, that woman is not Audra McDonald. How could it be? The four-time Tony Award-winning actress and singer, who last appeared on Broadway three years ago in the mostly terrific revival of A Raisin in the Sun defines elegance, glamour, and yes, even beauty in a world that too seldom knows what to do with them when presented with the genuine articles.
No, the woman in question is Lizzie Curry, whom McDonald is playing with such thorough invisibility that not until she utters those two unthinkable words do you truly see her as beautiful. As that expression escapes her lips, McDonald lets loose a smile that melts Lizzie's entire dour history before your eyes: The girl described as plain time and time again, most searingly by her own family, vanishes to reveal a gorgeous, confident woman underneath. All after McDonald, despite her own looks, had convinced you it wasn't possible.
If nothing else in this production evokes quite that expectation-defying magic, there is no shortage of other joys. As directed by Lonny Price, this musical by Harvey Schmidt (music), Tom Jones (lyrics), and N. Richard Nash (libretto, based on his play The Rainmaker), though it premiered on Broadway 43 years ago and is set in 1936, feels younger, truer, and more vibrant than most of the new musicals that have opened this season - without ever relying on shock, camp, or irony, popular crutches for supporting today's shows.
But when the Currys' Texas Panhandle home, ravaged by the Dust Bowl, is visited by a stranger calling himself Starbuck (Steve Kazee), the rain he promises to create also has the potential to revitalize Lizzie's life along with the town's crops - all for the bargain price of $100. Lizzie sees through his schemes, but he sees right through her outer shell of insecurity to the passionate woman who's spent far too many years out of sight. Most importantly, he takes it upon himself to help her to see it, too.
Nash's libretto hews so closely to his play and the story's basics so recall those of The Music Man that you might think you're seeing an intersection of retreads. Not so - Nash's book is most efficient, but serious of tone and genuinely moving; it's matched, even enhanced, by the lovely Jones-Schmidt score bearing just the right Texan twang. (Jonathan Tunick has provided the customary, and customarily strong, reductions in his new orchestrations.)
The only thing stale about this 110 in the Shade is the physical production, which is minimalistic almost to a fault. Santo Loquasto's costumes and Christopher Akerlind's lighting strike the right chords, but Loquasto's set, featuring an enormous flat circle that serves as both presiding sun and moon and not much else, feels far too distractingly modernist to suggest a place where the simple life is still the only life that matters.
Thankfully, Price and his performers have so focused themselves that this production feels as concentrated, intense, and satisfying as a production of Nash's original play. Cullum and Butler are especially effective at presenting the opposing poles of Lizzie's self-image: Cullum's weary, but warmly loving, energy is a fitting counterpart to the insensitive, but not angry, strength of Butler's Noah, for whom speaking the truth (or what he perceives as it) is the only way to get Lizzie to live. Steggart's a bundle of jittery, song-and-dance-man energy as the excitable Jimmy, Innvar brings plenty of masculine, stolid reluctance to the lawman.
McDonald, on the other hand, holds the stage and holds you in her thrall as she explores all of Lizzie's facets. She's wanly optimistic in "Love, Don't Turn Away," and becomes pure jokey showstopper during "Raunchy," about the imaginary adventurous life she could live. (McDonald's performance of this song is all that rivals Kristin Chenoweth's work in The Apple Tree, the last tenant at Studio 54, as the most captivating musical comedy work of the season.) Late in the show, when she's torn between safety at home and adventure on the road, her newfound, giddy curiosity of her suddenly expanding options is downright infectious.
But it's at the end of the first act that she so wraps you in Lizzie's anguish that you feel her despair as if it were your own. The song is "Old Maid," sung by Lizzie at her lowest, when it looks as if the last of her last chances has faded away. Picturing life as a recluse, dependent on the kindness of others, it's the first time Lizzie allows herself to release the rage she's bottled up inside, and it explodes through McDonald's thick, soulful voice with a piercing urgency suggesting her very bones will crush under the weight of her longings.
"Oh, God," she cries, "don't let me live and die alone." Each word is a slash that unleashes the fear and hopelessness locked inside her, and inside anyone who's ever prayed exactly that. Yet there's no pity in McDonald's plea: It's a demand to claim her own corner of humanity in the time she has left. At this point, Lizzie hasn't yet learned she's beautiful. But in finding so many extraordinary colors in this "plain" woman, McDonald proves beyond any doubt that she, the love she craves, and the show containing them all most certainly are.