Musicals just don’t get a lot smarter or more sensitive than the loping “110 in the Shade” that opened Wednesday at Ford’s Theatre. The 1963 show is simple but bighearted, with an underrated score by “The Fantasticks” team of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones that is gorgeously sung. This sunny, direct production takes a laudable, matter-of-fact approach to its racially diverse casting and even has an answer for folks at odds with the story’s throwback plot.
The problem: “110” is an adaptation of the early 1950s play “The Rainmaker,” a tale about a rural Texas gal named Lizzie whose father and brothers fret that she’s just got to find a man to avoid being an old maid. Screamingly out of date, no?
It doesn’t feel that way at Ford’s, even though an uncomfortable ripple swept through a section of the house as Lizzie’s tart-tongued brother Noah brutally tells her to face facts: She’s “plain,” and destined to be alone. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge digs in with no apologies; she doesn’t try to outfox it or torque it toward 2016. Lizzie’s cowpoke dad and brothers may be naggingly paternalistic (on a 1950s ranch — imagine!), yet this appealingly humane performance finds balance in a theme showered on several characters: loneliness.
Dodge’s chief ally is Tracy Lynn Olivera, whose winning turn keenly dials into Lizzie’s bright mind and repressed, fretful isolation. In Olivera’s sharp, open performance, Lizzie grasps everything and hides nothing. Olivera is a whiz with the role’s tart wit and frank resignation, and the way she ultimately connects with men reveals how much damage (and optimism) there is to go around.
The masculine pickings are a slim way out of Lizzie’s parched little town, but a couple of options bubble up. One is File (Kevin McAllister), the local sheriff who has crawled into his own shell since his wife ran off. (The way this show twangs, you want to say, “Since his wife done run off.”) The other is a spectacular stranger who has renamed himself Starbuck (Ben Crawford). Starbuck is a flimflam man who promises the locals that for $100, by golly, he can make it rain.
That’s a metaphor for how Starbuck may be able to make Lizzie bloom, too, although she is the biggest skeptic of them all. They duke it out in duets such as “You’re Not Foolin’ Me” and “Simple Little Things,” supported by the unhurried, mellow tones of musical director Jay Crowder’s eight-piece orchestra.
If there’s a snag in this production, it seems like it might be Crawford’s Starbuck, who initially springs in like a greaser from another kind of show. (He even flaunts a “Happy Days” Fonzie move, coolly kicking his cheap-o trailer to make some fancy lights come on.) Crawford punches up Starbuck’s gaudy side when you think that maybe a smoother pitch might make the sale, but the crazy energy — which includes some giddy, unbridled rain-dance moves during his opening number — gradually makes sense.
It helps that Crawford has a great set of pipes. It’s delicious to hear him unfurl long, rich lines during Starbuck’s ballad “Evening Star” and the whip-the-town-into-a-frenzy “Rain Song.” Ditto McAllister, whose File is laid-back and deep-voiced as he croons the opener “Gonna Be Another Hot Day” and his duet with Lizzie, “A Man and a Woman.”
The balanced cast includes the assured trio of Christopher Bloch as Lizzie’s well-meaning father, Gregory Maheu as her sweet but dim brother Jimmy, and Stephen Gregory Smith as the bossy Noah. (This must have been particular fun for Smith, who played Jimmy when Signature Theatre revived “110” in 2003.) Dodge’s choreography includes nimble little two-steps for these fellas and a lively comic sequence for “Little Red Hat,” a second-banana number involving Jimmy and his girlfriend, Snookie (a perky Bridget Riley).
Michael Schweikardt’s set is a very pretty suggestion of drought-riddled Texas, with a windmill and a water tower in front of a romantic blue-red sky; the design is as picturesque as Wade Laboissonniere’s notably well-tailored jeans-and-boots costumes. The production has the look of an earthy fable, and it complements the deceptively colorful Schmidt-Jones score. Dodge’s wonderfully pleasant show is as earnest and honest as Lizzie and, like Starbuck, just a little bit larger than life.
110 in the Shade, by N. Richard Nash, music by Harvey Schmidt, lyrics by Tom Jones. Directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Lights, Matthew Richards; sound design, David Budries. With Alex Alferov, Michael Bunce, Maria Egler, Kristen Garaffo, Jade Jones, Happy McPartlin, Ines Nassara, Chris Sizemore, Stephawn Stephens and Michael Yeshion. About 2 hours and 20 minutes. Through May 14 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Tickets: $22-$71, subject to change. Call 800-982-2787 or visit fords.org.