Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Dry heat radiates up through the floorboards at the outset of the Signature Theatre’s smartly reconsidered 110 in the Shade, catching dust in the air and making it shimmer around a dozen or so townfolk who already seem to be wilting, at dawn. Designer Jonathan Blandin’s blast of orange light is soon supported by a sultry clarinet wail and a lyric about “another hot day” in a town desperate for rain, but don’t be fooled by the arid exhaustion that’s everywhere evident. This long-neglected but remarkably vibrant musical is less about weathering a drought than about the life-affirming spurt of growth that comes at the end of it.
Based on The Rainmaker, N. Richard Nash’s drama about a charismatic drifter who breezes into a Dust Bowl town claiming he can conjure moisture from thin air—and who changes the life of the spunky spinster who tries to combat his claims with common sense—110 in the Shade didn’t catch the Broadway audience’s fancy in 1963. It was a splashy, plot-based musical in an age of big-lady tuners (Hello Dolly! and Funny Girl ran riot at that year’s Tony Awards), and although it boasted a pleasant score, choreography by Agnes de Mille, a well-received performance by Robert Horton of TV’s Wagon Train, and a perfectly respectable 10-month run, it has been largely forgotten in the decades since.
I’d always assumed its limited appeal could be chalked up to overreaching by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, the creators of The Fantasticks, who would hardly have been the first songwriters to stumble in a leap from off-Broadway intimacy to Broadway razzle-dazzle. A cast of 55 and all that stage to fill must have been daunting; and they did, after all, bounce back a few years later with the two-character musical I Do, I Do, seemingly proving that they worked best in miniature.
Happily for D.C., Eric Schaeffer, who’s made a specialty of taming Broadway spectacle in Signature’s chamber mountings of musicals, has been able to work with the authors to reduce Shade’s scale without diminishing its emotional heat. Focusing on the central characters and all but eliminating the chorus that once sang and danced up a storm, the production is more reconsideration than revival, clarifying the plot in a way that—paradoxically—emphasizes the weaknesses in Nash’s book even as it’s making the show stronger.
Like most musicals, Shade has romance at its heart, in this case centering on Lizzie (Jacquelyn Piro), whose family is eager to marry her off but whose plainness and habit of speaking her mind keep the local boys at bay. Lizzie’s protective father and brothers have settled on practical, unprepossessing Sheriff File (James Moye) as the likeliest mate the town has to offer, but he won’t even join Lizzie for a picnic, so preoccupied is he with news that a con man is headed their way. That would be Starbuck (Matt Bogart), who is not just a dashing, smooth-talking seller of miracles but also a believer in big dreams and a champion of the underdog. In no time, Starbuck has the whole town banging drums to conjure thunder, and Lizzie’s wondering if that’s what’s causing the pounding in her head or if it’s just her pulse racing.
Now, if in this plot summary you hear echoes of everything from Oklahoma! to Anyone Can Whistle to The Music Man, you won’t be alone. Shade hews closely to the formula that held sway in musical comedy’s golden age, with its sweet young thing and her problematic swain, its supportively bemused chorus, and its comic subplot (involving Lizzie’s adorably dim brother and a loose local lass). Jonathan Tunick’s new orchestrations even bring a Richard Rodgers lushness to Schmidt’s tunes.
Where the show runs into trouble is the overly schematic choice it offers its leading lady, a perfectly presentable woman who’s treated as if she were the most romantically hapless creature on earth. The authors give Lizzie just two options: She can run off with the clearly unreliable but swoonily dream-inspiring charlatan (Bogart is everything any musical-comedy heroine could ask for), or she can stay home with the pleasantly dull sheriff (Moye is stalwart and steady, and does everything he can with a seriously underdramatized part).
I found myself wishing she’d chuck them both and tell off the well-meaning busybodies who keep saying she’ll never get a mate, but I suppose if she did that, there wouldn’t be much for anyone to sing about. And sing these folks do—roof-raisingly and in just about every situation that can comfortably accommodate music. There’s a welcome-home song for Lizzie’s family and a rainmaking song for Starbuck, a picnic song for the townfolk and a brace of torchy ballads for the principals, including a lilting lullaby called “Evenin’ Star” that was apparently cut before the Broadway opening. There’s also a pair of first-rate patter numbers—a new advice ditty specially written for this production called “You Gotta Get a Man the Way a Man Gets Got” and a hugely appealing dumb-guy-gets-the-girl song called “Little Red Hat” that’s so winning as performed by Stephen Gregory Smith and A.K. Brink that it effectively stops the second act cold. And topping everything off is a rousing finale in which the creators finesse a romantic outcome that few patrons are likely to view as emotionally satisfying with a drenched-in-symbolism coup de theatre that’s theatrically revivifying enough to send the crowd out buzzing and happy.
There’s really only one hitch in Schaeffer’s, spare, smart staging, and it’s a casting issue. Everyone keeps talking about how plain Lizzie is—the plot, in fact, depends on her being so unattractive that even her formidable cooking skills can’t get her a husband—but Piro is a certifiable knockout, pretty enough that you figure the heat referred to in the title must have fried the brains of all the folks who keep running her down. I know all about nontraditional casting (incidentally, even in a town that’s been pared from 55 to 15, it would be nice to see a nonwhite face or two), but the effect of having a really lovely young woman derided for two hours as unattractive by folks who simultaneously say they’re willing to look past her flaws is that you wonder what she could possibly see in the patronizing jerks, why she’s so willing to put up with their abuse. That might make for an interesting musical, actually, albeit not one as appealing as 110 in the Shade. CP