How is it that the 1963 musical, 110 in the Shade, can still seem so relevant today? The title can’t help but make us think about current concerns with global warming and drought. But it’s the musical’s social messages that are timeless and sure to resonate with audiences both young and old.
Based on the 1954 play, The Rainmaker, by N. Richard Nash, the musical’s bona fides are impressive. Nash wrote the book while the talented team behind The Fantasticks was responsible for the lyrics (Tom Jones) and music (Harvey Schmidt). There have been very few stagings since that time, including a 1992 New York City Opera Revival, a 1999 concert production in London, and the 2007 Broadway revival. So the new production now playing at Ford’s Theatre is not to be missed.
If you are unfamiliar with 110 in the Shade, you’re not alone. In a press release, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, said that she had no knowledge of the show when she was approached by Ford’s Theatre Director Paul R. Tetreault to be the production’s choreographer and director. She quickly fell in love with the story, which features a formidable woman at the center, and the music, which ranges from “sweeping Americana sound,” to “heartfelt melodies.” But it was the musical’s themes that really excited her. “The show makes two points about dreams: we can’t live entirely in them, but we can’t live a hopeful life without them,” she said. “110 in the Shade is a hopeful story, and we need that now.”
Dodge signed on and her deft hand is visible throughout this terrific production. The choreography is exuberant, whether we are watching the entire cast dance a hoe-down, or a love-struck couple (Jimmy played by Gregory Maheu and Snookie, played by Bridget Riley), execute a Texas-style pas de deux. There’s never a lag in the action, something critical in a musical that clocks in at more than two and a half hours.
The setting is a small rain-starved Texas town in the 1950s. Everything on stage, including the water tower, seems brown and dusty. While townspeople enter to fill pitchers and buckets with their daily water rations, the sheriff, File (Kevin McAllister), belts out the obvious: “Gonna Be Another Hot Day.” McAllister’s stage presence and booming baritone/bass voice sets the tone. McAllister, who brought us to tears when he sang “Father, How Long?” in Ford’s Theatre’s production of Freedom’s Song, continues to excite us with his performances.
McAllister’s File manages a strong presence to the people he’s sworn to protect. Yet maintaining that facade takes its toll. He calls himself a widower, even though the whole town knows his wife ran off with another man. Rancher H.C. Curry (Christopher Bloch) hopes that File will marry his daughter, Lizzie (Tracy Lynn Olivera), who has arrived home after she failed to find a husband while staying with friends in neighboring Sweetwater. H.C. and his two sons, Jimmy (Maheu) and Noah (Stephen Gregory Smith), invite File to the annual picnic so that Lizzie can impress him with her fancy dress and tasty picnic basket. Lizzie is reluctant to attend, but gives in singing “Love Don’t Turn Away.” File, however, is a no show.
Seen through a contemporary lens, Lizzie’s treatment by her family, if not outright abuse, is certainly psychologically damaging. She’s constantly put down, particularly by Noah, for being “plain,” and unable to attract a man. In a humorous exchange, Jimmy, who is taunted for being dumb, tries to give Lizzie pointers for flirting with a man, using some of Snookie’s come-ons as examples. Lizzie’s self esteem may be suffering, but she sticks to her game plan to attract the right kind of husband. “I want him to stand up straight, and I want to be able to stand up straight to him,” she says.
Lizzie’s world is jolted when a stranger named Starbuck arrives in his carnival-like trailer promising to bring rain – for a price. While townspeople quickly fall under Starbuck’s spell – including H.C. who forks over $100 to bring about the rain – Lizzie quickly sizes up the new arrival as a con man. Lizzie, however, has met her match. Starbuck confronts Lizzie with her fears about not being pretty or even feeling like a woman and his observations hit home. As Starbuck, Ben Crawford is so athletic and acrobatic (at one point he slithers on the floor), we wonder if he’s spent time with Cirque de Soleil. Besides having some of the best dance moves this side of Magic Mike, he can act, his scenes with Olivera crackling with sexual tension.
I could listen to Tracy Lynn Olivera sing the phone book (or what passes for the phone book these days). Fortunately, she’s given fabulous material to work with here and she gives it her all. While she can certainly belt out a song (“Raunchy”), it’s the love ballads in the second act that stop our hearts. When she comes to the realization that yes, she is beautiful, seeing that beauty reflected in Starbuck’s eyes, that flood of emotion comes through in song.
In the end, Lizzie is left to choose between File and Starbuck. Will she stay with the stable File or agree to travel around the country with Starbuck? No matter which man Lizzie chooses, she’s now a changed woman and will go into this marriage believing in herself without being held hostage by other people’s opinions.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
110 in the Shade
511 Tenth Street, NW
Through May 14, 2016