From time to time I plan to write on my theater going experiences, since that has been such an important part of my life. 110 In The Shade is a musical version of N. Richard Nash's 1954 play, The Rainmaker by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt of The Fantastics fame. You will certainly be familiar with the play if you have every been in an acting class. You can't get out of one without seeing someone do a scene from that play. More likely many of you saw the film with Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn. I saw the show a few weeks ago at the Roundabout Theater (linked above) when it was still in previews and it is terrific.
In many ways this is a classic Broadway musical - it's structure is tried and true. It opens with a chorus number, the lead character - Lizzie Curry - has a character-revealing solo in Act I, it has a secondary romantic couple who do a silly dance number, but classical form has never been a fault. It works for Shakespeare. That's one place I really fault Ben Brantley's NY Times review which called Audra McDonald's superb performance "too good" for the piece. He's certainly not off the mark about the quality of her performance - utterly human, compelling, beautifully sung whether lyrical or belt, real deeply-felt acting at every moment - but I think he misses what her performances reveals about this musical. A good performance is not going to change the form of a piece created for Broadway in 1963, however the musical doesn't patronize Lizzie, as Brantley claims, its her father and older brother who patronize her. If you read traditional plot summaries of this piece, they describe Lizzie as an "old maid" and Starbuck - the rainmaker - as a "con man." Sure, those are their stereotypes, and her father is an "old man," and her younger brother is a "rube," BUT if you can get past your expectations of what a musical is supposed to give you - and with many of the performances in this production you actually can - you see a story where those characters belie their stereotypes, and that is what this show is all about. It seems to me this is not a story about an old maid (the point of view one takes looking in on the story from the outside) it is Lizzie's story. She has almost all the music in the show - and as such, this story reveals the experience of the "other." Whether that is the experience of two musical theater-loving boys growing up in Texas in the 1930s , as in the case of Jones and Schmidt (am I reading too much into this?), or the story of a black woman growing up in a white society, as I can imagine Audra McDonald probably experienced - they both speak deeply through the experience of Lizzie, still unmarried because she is bookish and outspoken and taught that that means she is not attractive. Audra Mcdonald infuses each moment spoken or sung with the most deeply human pain and rage, and that's far from being "too good" for this piece, it is rather exactly what it needs so that we can feel this story from the inside and either remember or learn what the pain of ostracism is like. It is a disservice when a society teaches us to judge others merely for their difference from us. It is tragic when that society adds to that corrupting that person's own judgment of themselves, so that they imagine themselves less smart, beautiful or worthy than they actually are.
Other things to enjoy in this worthwhile production are John Cullum's relaxed, hapless father, and a wonderfully understated Christopher Invar (although he sometimes sings under pitch) , as File, the sherrif and another outsider in this story. Santo Loquasto's double-turntable set is very effective - particularly as used by director Lonny Price in one number of Lizzie's toward the end of the show. I also liked the simple disk serving both as the "curtain" and the looming sun of the drought afflicted Southwestern town. The fancy house that trucks in for the early scene in which we are introduced to the Curry family and then witness Lizzie's homecoming, replete with walls and a door, seems like overkill - some furniture on the turntable would have served just as well. And I'll put in a plea you may hear frequently from me: these are talented singers - does the show HAVE to be miked? I hate when a show works so hard to create intimacy with a nicely sized theater and honest performances and then completely throws me out of the experience when their voice seems to come from somewhere else. Finally, I praise the casting of good singers and actors of all races - without respect to whether they are playing members of the same family. The opera world been way ahead of theater on this score for years. It's about time that it becomes common practice on the Broadway stage. Talent is talent and this show is full of it - I hope you get a chance to see it.