Editors' pick

110 in the Shade

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Editorial Review

'110 in the Shade': Signature's Ray of Sunshine
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 30, 2003; Page C01

The voices pierce director Eric Schaeffer's remarkable new "110 in the Shade" like whistling winds across the prairie. You can hear so much in these voices, so much of the raw emotion that the authors unabashedly sought to instill in this tender musical of 40 years ago.

It was a show that did not make all that much of a noise back in the 1963-64 season, when its impact was muffled by other Broadway newcomers, "Hello, Dolly!" and "Funny Girl" among them. Schaeffer's supple and economical revival for Signature Theatre is likely to ensure that that doesn't happen this time around.

He's taken this piece of heartfelt Americana firmly in hand and, with the assistance of a vibrant cast, world-class orchestrator and scenic designer with an eye for the beauty in plainness, he's created something so fresh it could have an expiration date. The show is as unadorned as the heartland it is supposed to mirror.

Based on N. Richard Nash's 1954 play "The Rainmaker" (Nash also wrote the book for the musical), "110 in the Shade" does have a couple of mighty hurdles in its path, having to do with plot deficiencies and a theme harking back to the days when women could be referred to as "the distaff side." The story suggests that, horror of horrors, a woman who can't rope a man is condemned to the ninth circle of Hell, aka spinsterhood. And men in the show feel free to lecture the heroine, Lizzie (the sterling Jacquelyn Piro), about the most intimate things. "You don't even believe you're a woman," the hunky mystery man Starbuck (Matt Bogart) informs her. "And if you don't, you're not." (No man comes in for nearly such harsh scrutiny.)

All the antique conceits in the world don't stop Schaeffer, though. Working with the most feverishly melodic score that Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, of "Fantasticks" fame, have ever come up with, the director pares "110" down to its emotional core and finds a bracing musical vocabulary of longing. From the stirring opening ensemble number, "Another Hot Day," to Lizzie's self-pitying aria, "Old Maid," to Starbuck's cry in the dark, "Evenin' Star" -- one of the two new songs introduced in this production -- the voices ring out with need. They're the anthems of a people parched from loneliness and thwarted expectations.

As he proved again so effectively at the Kennedy Center last summer in "Passion," Stephen Sondheim's high dive into a pool of obsessive love, Schaeffer goes in big for musicals on a human scale. Bolstered by Jonathan Tunick's multi-hued new orchestrations, which at times conjure Copland as much as Schmidt and Jones, "110" has a roundness of sound and fullness of feeling. Lizzie's evolution from despondency to engagement with the world -- an embrace tempered by memories of her rejection -- makes emotional sense, even if the story itself remains a fairy tale.

The scope of the fable has been dramatically reduced. The original cast of dozens has been trimmed to a muscular 13, but the stage never looks or feels underpopulated. For the story of a Western town depleted by drought that is visited by a stranger who promises to bring rain, set designer Eric Grims has created a kind of baked flatland. The plank-board stage is enveloped in a dry haze; there's no doubt that we're in the Dust Bowl. Overhead is suspended a scarlet "O" of a sun, a smudge more than circle, and just offstage, bridging an aisle in the audience, looms a derrick. Through an upstage wall the lighting designer, Jonathan Blandin, shoots red-orange light, adding to the Mojave-like effects.

It's not until you leave the theater that it dawns on you: The entire show is performed virtually without scenery, and there are only a few props. The characters themselves are all the furnishings Schaeffer needs.

The tale takes place over a single day that marks the return of Lizzie, after a visit to relatives in a nearby town, where she has maintained her perfect record for putting off men. Though her father (Harry Winter) and brothers (Thomas Adrian Simpson and Stephen Gregory Smith) hope she'll entice the local sheriff, File (James Moye), the lawman, with problems of his own, expresses no interest. It also happens to be the day of the arrival in town of Starbuck, the con man with the claim that he can bring the rains. But mostly, what intrigues Starbuck is the challenge of restoring Lizzie to full bloom.

You can tell that the roots of "110" were planted before Betty Friedan had her say in the culture, and yet the musical is not an exercise in condescension. The townspeople are not your typical cartoonish yokels, and the actors playing Lizzie's father and brothers create a real family unit that is fortified in their first number, "Lizzie's Comin' Home," a song that starts as a solo and builds to an effervescent trio. Winter is a natural as H.C., the dad; Simpson brings a sturdy truth to the hidebound brother, Noah; and Smith has high-octane charm as the younger brother, Jimmy, who gets one of those delicious comedy numbers, "Little Red Hat," that were standard in musicals of the '50s and '60s.

Their affection for Piro's Lizzie is well placed. With her modest appearance (why are pinned-up hair and sensible shoes always shorthand for "plain"?), she invites us to do her makeover in our heads. More to the point, though, Piro manages the trick of seeming both formidable and vulnerable. She is neither mushy nor overwrought, and she sings with a conviction that lets us know that there's a passionate girl under the wilted exterior. Moye's stifled File, meanwhile, is a lovely match for Lizzie. It's a wonderfully stoical performance, in fact, so recognizably male.

Bogart has the most rigorous job, down to the star entrance he makes, in sleeveless undershirt, a la James Dean (or maybe Elvis). Starbuck is a fantasy figure to begin with, and here he's so male-model buff he could have floated in off the cover of a romance novel. The script hands him a daunting checklist: Enchant the town with his introductory number (the rousing "Rain Song"); win over the skeptical Lizzie; acknowledge his own pain and insecurity; and set Lizzie on the path to self-awareness. Plus, he has to say things like, "I needed a name with the whole sky in it, and the power of a man!"

These lines are not of Bogart's making, and he does the best he can with them. His sultry baritone, too, goes a long way toward smoothing over the rough spots. (He also has a couple of terrific duets with Piro.) Harder to fathom, though, is Karma Camp's choreography, steps that would have looked hokey on a television variety show in the '60s.

Still, Schaeffer's overall achievement is not greatly affected. Those startling voices are what you start with, and what haunt you all the way home. Oh yes, there's a downpour, too, brought to you at evening's end by the musical's rainmaker. It's almost superfluous. Long before the storm clouds break, you've been refreshed time and again.

110 in the Shade, music by Harvey Schmidt, lyrics by Tom Jones, book by N. Richard Nash. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; costumes, Michelle Reisch. With Dan Manning, Chrystyna Dail, Mary Payne, Joe Peck. Approximately 2 1/2 hours. Through March 2 at Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Dr., Arlington. Call 800-955-5566 or visit www.signature-theatre.org