Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May, 2007
110 in the Shade is a little gem of a musical written by those masters of little musical gems – Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt – whose names are forever etched in musical theatre history as the creators of The Fantasticks. Like that phenomenally popular show, “110 in the Shade” focuses on family and love, only this time the woman and two men who form the central romantic triangle are middle-aged and world-weary.
Lizzie Curry (Monica M. Wemitt) is over thirty and unmarried. She lives on a ranch in the Texas panhandle with her father H.C. (Michael Kreutz) and her two brothers, the somber Noah (John Saunders) and the goofy young Jimmy (Michael Salimbene), who provides much of the comic relief in tandem with his sassy sweetheart Snookie (Erica Wilpon). After Lizzie returns on a scorching hot summer day from a failed road trip in search of a potential spouse, her family once again tries to match her up with the single but moody Sheriff File (Al Pagano), but he is not biting. Then the handsome and smooth-talking Bill Starbuck (Rob Richardson) appears, promising to bring much-needed rain...for a hundred dollars, which was a lot of money back in the 1930’s. It is evident from the start that Starbuck is not what he appears to be, but can he be what Lizzie needs him to be? In the course of less than 24-hours everything changes in the lives of these seven people.
The Mac-Haydn has wisely put The Rainmaker in parentheses on all their publicity materials (including their cheerful pink sign on Rt. 203) for 110 in the Shade because while more people are aware of this 1963 musical version since its recent Tony-nominated New York revival at the Roundabout starring Audra McDonald, a larger number are familiar with either N. Richard Nash’s 1954 play The Rainmaker or the 1956 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster. Nash wrote the book for Schmidt’s music and Jones’ lyrics, and 110 in the Shade had a respectable half-year run on Broadway.
Just saying that Hepburn was cast as Lizzie gives you a clear picture of this whip-smart, out-spoken, and iron-willed woman. And also gives you a good idea of how her menfolk would come to depend on her to run things. Noah may run the ranch and H.C. may be the patriarch, but Lizzie rules the roost.
But now I need you to stop thinking about Katharine Hepburn because Monica M. Wemitt is nothing like her. Nor is she anything like McDonald*. In fact I can’t think of three more different woman than Hepburn, McDonald, and Wemitt. And yet all three of them make wonderful Lizzies**.
Under Doug Hodge’s direction Wemitt plays the role with almost no make-up, her hair tied back in a severe bun for the first half of the play, and yet her Lizzie is a woman who takes pride in her appearance, plain though she assumes it to be. Wemitt gives Lizzie tremendous strength and dignity. She is not afraid to get in someone’s face with the truth, which is an obvious reason why men don’t find her more approachable, despite her obvious assets which include brains, a good sense of humor, and top-notch domestic skills, as well as a basic underlying beauty that comes radiantly to the surface at the show’s end.
She is impressively matched by Pagano’s File. I bet you thought I was going to say Richardson’s Starbuck, but, while I enjoyed Richardson, I felt that Pagano really presented File as a believable, flesh-and-blood man. Starbuck is the showier role with all the big numbers. I loved the way Schmidt kept the music in the early numbers kind of honky-tonk country and then, as soon as Starbuck entered, it became jazzy and sexy and dangerous. Richardson is a handsome hunk of man (boy, is he TALL!), and looks every inch the clever con man. But I liked that it wasn’t his obvious physical assets that attracted Wemitt’s Lizze, but his secret loneliness, an inner ache that matched hers and allowed them to complete each other. Pagano likewise played the emptiness of File’s life very well, which made Lizzie’s ultimate decision a real heart-breaker.
Saunders can always be counted on for a strong performance, and he doesn’t disappoint here. His Noah shows great affection for what he perceives as his hopelessly air-headed family members, but he doles out tough love and apologies in equal measure.
Kreutz, Salimbene and Wilpon have much lighter-weight roles, and they acquitted themselves nicely. Salimbene was a little too Jethro Bodine for my taste, but he and Wilpon did bring an important note of youth and energy to a show that otherwise might have become to weighted down by serious grown-up stuff.
Jimm Halliday has done his usual snappy job of costuming this show with three inexplicable and glaring exceptions. First, that horrible pleather vest Starbuck wears in his early scenes. If its 110 in the shade why is he wearing a suede jacket AND a vest AND a long sleeved shirt? I have to say, even though it was a hot night when I saw the show, the one thing Hodge has failed to get his actors to do is play the heat. I never believed it was oppressively hot.
Halliday’s other two fashion faux pas – that dorky little red hat of Snookie’s and the fact that the buttons on the blouse and skirt of Wemitt’s Act II ensemble don’t line up, have less effect on the overall feel of the show.
The lighting by Andrew Gmoser is especially effective, simulating realistic sunlight and starshine nicely. Bob Hamel has designed a serviceable and attractive set, which I think they can keep and use for Oklahoma!, which is next on the boards at the Mac.
I assume that Hamel and Stage Manager Thomm Yost are responsible for the rain effect at the end, a rigging that I am sure will be put to good use again for “Singin’ in the Rain” in August. It worked beautifully when it was supposed to, but in advance it periodically dripped ominously, which detracted further from the red-hot, bone-dry atmosphere and frankly terrified me at first because I know from experience that water and theatrical lighting are an explosive combination. This system is obviously completely safe and my brief panic was for naught. An inadvertently amusing moment came when the cast launched into the finale, aptly titled The Rain Song, and everyone seated in the front row whipped out the plastic sheeting the management had thoughtfully provided and hunkered down. Yes, even I got a little splattered in the second row, but its all part of the fun, just don’t wear your best dry-clean-only silks to this production.
This is very much a show about what loneliness does to people, and how different people cope with it. None of the characters in this play are married. While Lizzie, as a woman, is marked by her aloneness, she actually lives in a family group, while File and Starbuck both lead absolutely solitary lives, which is socially more acceptable for men but likewise it is not acceptable for them to speak about their loneliness, whereas Lizzie is permitted to give ample voice to hers.
The most moving moments in the show come when Wemitt’s Lizzie confronts her spinsterhood head on. The first act “curtain” is especially effective, as is the point near the end of the show when she realizes that she is no longer alone, and it feels as if her relief and release is what opens the heavens to bring down the life-giving rain, as if the whole cosmos has been holding its breath until Lizzie finds happiness.
110 in the Shade runs through June 3 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. I would imagine children 10 and up would enjoy this show thoroughly. Little ones may find all the "mushy stuff" boring. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
* CBS will broadcast the 71st Annual Tony Awards at 8 pm on Sunday, June 10. I bet they will also present a number from 110 in the Shade as part of the Broadcast, which will be the closest those of us whose pocket books are happier with Mac-Haydn prices than Broadway ones will get, even though they have extended the run for two weeks. Four-time Tony Award winner McDonald received her sixth nomination for her portrayal of Lizzie. The show was also nominated in the categories of Best Revival of a Musical, Best Featured Actor in a Musical (John Cullum as H.C.), Best Lighting of a Musical, and Best Orchestrations.
** Here’s an odd bit of trivia – in 1963 Lizzie was played by the very attractive young Inga Swenson, best known today for playing Gretchen Kraus, Robert Guillaume’s nemesis on Benson. Even in a big Broadway house it is inconceivable that anyone could have mistaken that willowy blonde for an old maid.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007