As the opening song exclaims, “Gonna Be Another Hot Day”- and like a refreshing breeze, the lilting lyrics and melodious music of the prolific theatre songwriting team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (The Fantasticks, I Do! I Do!) surges over the Ford’s Theatre’s current robust production of 110 in the Shade. The entire production moves like clockwork with loads of bustling, colorful energy and verve thanks to superior Direction and Choreography by Marcia Milgram Dodge, with a pointed accent on investing almost every single step the actors take with bits of choreographic brio.
Singing and acting duties duties are performed by an extremely talented cast. To my mind’s eye, however, the saving grace of this musical is the musical score – which is an underrated jewel full of a vast variety of styles from large ensemble harmonies to comic novelty numbers to soaring ballads of yearning.
Director extraordinaire Marcia Milgram Dodge knows how to take the somewhat dated and stale conventions of the adequate book by N. Richard Nash and play with all the clichés like a precocious child with a new toy. As Ms. Dodge propels this large cast through nineteen musical numbers, there is not a static moment in sight. Dodge trusts her instincts and she has her main characters (Lizzie, the supposedly plain woman in search of love and Starbuck, the Rainmaker –and “con-man” to some) revel in playing their roles with a little wink at the audience as pre-feminist themes are explored and our illustrious rainmaker heightens the atmosphere of this 1950’s Texas town with a manic and self-possessed intensity.
Based on the famous Broadway play The Rainmaker with Geraldine Page as Lizzie Curry (and, later, made into a major film starring Katharine Hepburn), the evocative musical version of this play premiered on Broadway in 1963 starring Inga Swenson and was a moderate success. It was later made into a critically appreciated revival in 2007 starring Audra McDonald.
The Musical team of Schmidt and Jones had just come off their illustrious show The Fantasticks and they wrote this interesting score right before their Mary Martin and Robert Preston-starring Broadway hit – I Do! I Do! I could easily see musical aspects of both shows in this score for this is a songwriting team that loves to encompass a variety of styles. Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Jones are masters at making each song very conversational and very subtly astringent in tone and each musical number is a total natural extension of each character’s unique personality.
Another fascinating aspect of this musical is how it propels the trajectory of the supposedly bad influence of the “con man” or “confidence man” –from Guys and Dolls to The Music Man and, obviously, in this intriguing musical-this conceit works to heighten the contrast between the world of illusion/dreams and the very real world of “The Simple Little Things” that our heroine sings of. The crux of this evocative musical seems to be finding the golden middle between the two extremes.
Music Director and Conductor Jay Crowder leads a scintillating assemblage of seven other musicians in the orchestra pit of the Ford’s Theatre and the large ensemble of players sings exuberantly enough to shake the rafters. Dialects and Voice Director Leigh Wilson Smiley has coached very natural accents form the entire ensemble. Costume Designer Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes are a riot of color from the picnic attire in the peppy ensemble number “The Hungry Men” and especially in the duet for the characters of Jimmie and Snookie in the ribald duet “Little Red Hat.”
Tracy Lynn Olivera as Lizzie Curry is sublime in every aspect of her role. Rather than playing it too straight, Ms. Olivera knows how to entertain an audience with an effortless ease. Her constant sparring with the characters of Starbuck and File, as well as her own family, is very easy to understand thanks to the casual grace with which Olivera performs her role.
However, the main asset of Ms. Olivera is an absolutely thrilling vocal range that had me floating on air. Her rendition of the imploring “Love Don’t Turn Away” was revelatory. Olivera’s comic turn in the novelty number “Raunchy” brought out earthy chest tones that hit all the right sensual notes –as she seemed to be enjoying preforming this musical parody (a slight shade of Mae West even hovered around the edges a bit). Olivera’s Act one finale –the dramatic soliloquy “Old Maid” was a Master Class in sustained, vocal emotion —simply spellbinding! Lighting Designer Matthew Richards must be credited here as his variegated lighting full of simmering reds and burnt orange mirrored the myriad moods of Lizzie.
As the Rainmaker, Starbuck, Ben Crawford takes the role totally “over-the-top” and makes it work—thus, giving this musical a nice edgy and eccentric touch that it needs. Crawford is totally “on” almost every Nano-second and this interpretation fits in very well with such an extreme dreamer of a character. Arms akimbo, hands constantly flapping and his body in almost perpetual motion whether jumping or dancing a “mock-Charleston” to entrance our Lizzie, Crawford’s athletic yet lithe stage presence is a wonder to behold.
Crawford’s voice is sonorous and rich in tone and displayed to full advantage in the exciting ensemble number “Rain Song.” His comic, antic vocal performance in the humorous number “Melisande” is a definite highlight. Perhaps the most enjoyable interpretation of all is Crawford’s poignant and prosaic rendition of the languorous song “Evenin’ Star.”
Kevin McAllister as File, the Sherriff (and the other interested party in Lizzie’s life) firmly etches all the components of the realistic gentleman he represents. Though he is a sturdy actor, McAllister shines in his musical moments such as “Poker Polka” and “Wonderful Music.”
A vivid lesson in underplaying to an effective degree was given by Christopher Bloch as Lizzie’s Father. So often father figures are played in a heavy-handed fashion but Mr. Bloch injected a large amount of nuance and paternal affection in what could have easily been a routine role. Stephen Gregory Smith also delivered a nuanced performance as Lizzie’s assertive but good-hearted brother Noah.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the ebullient professionalism and sheer joy conveyed by Gregory Maheu in the role of Jimmy Curry and Bridget Riley in the role of Snookie Updegraff. Every second they were on stage these two actors made me feel like I was watching somebody discover the excitement of live theatre. Sensational acting pizazz and the electricity generated in their racy “double –entendre” number “Little Red Hat” was palpable. In fact, this number stopped the show!
The entire ensemble is to be highly commended as each member was choreographed with such finesse to bustling and syncopated effect by Director/Choreographer Dodge. Particularly engaging ensemble numbers were “Rain Song” and “Everything Beautiful Happens at Night” (I sensed glimmers of the influence of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at times).
Scenic Design by Michael Schweikardt was perfectly elemental yet effective –as befits any production of musical masters Schmidt and Jones.
I have decided to mention the thrill it was to actually meet lyricist Tom Jones – as he was attending this performance of his show and he was introduced prior to the show by Ford’s Theatre Director Paul R. Tetreault. (As a young man in college, I played the part of Bellamy in The Fantasticks and I worked behind the scene in a dinner theatre production of I Do! I Do!) Mr. Jones was very gracious and it was an honor to meet this theatrical legend.
If you are interested in hearty, vigorous Musical Theatre with an edge, you cannot afford to miss Ford’s Theatre’s production of 110 In the Shade!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Review of ‘110 in the Shade’ by Diane Jackson Schnoor on DCMetroTheaterArts.