Radiant performances in 110 in the Shade

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Michael Toscano

Starbuck, played by Ben Crawford, brings the promise of rain to a parched Texas town in Ford Theatre’s production of the musical 110 in the Shade. The show is on stage through May 11.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

If you’re a regular theatergoer and movie-watcher, you have probably seen 110 in the Shade long before its current incarnation at Ford’s Theatre, onstage now through May 14.

In fact, you have likely seen more than one of its many versions. It began as a TV play in 1953, before writer N. Richard Nash took it to Broadway the following year.

He gives us the story of Lizzie, approaching spinsterhood on a family ranch in drought-parched Texas during the early 1950s. A charming, silver-tongued stranger shows up and promises to deliver rain. He also brings with him the promise (or is it a threat?) to rehydrate Lizzie’s withered romantic life and sense of herself.

This straight play version was called The Rainmaker, and it was turned into a Hollywood film starring Katharine Hepburn (earning her an Oscar nomination) and Burt Lancaster in 1956.

Nash then collaborated with Tom Jones (lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music) for a musical version that hit Broadway in 1963, and again in 2007. There was even another TV version about 25 years ago. But the best version remains the film, bereft, perhaps of song, but brought to vital, pulsating life by Hepburn and Lancaster.

Hackneyed storyline?

That last statement may be surprising, based on Lancaster’s view of the material. This is what Joseph Anthony, who directed both the Broadway production and the film, said about him:

“He told me, ‘This play is a bunch of crap. The writer doesn’t know anything about country life, or what it means to be in a drought, with the cattle starving.’ I told him the drought was just a symbol of Lizzie’s parched soul, but he dismissed the idea out of hand... He was not much fun to work with.”

Maybe he wasn’t “much fun.” But he was correct. The story is vapid, with stereotypical characters and a story that plods from one easy-to-see-coming development to the next. It’s possible that Lancaster’s disdain for the material triggered an angry performance that blended physical magnetism with undefined menace.

And then there’s Hepburn, who doesn’t even try to capture the essence of a Texas rancher. She does her own thing, retains her brittle New England accent and reserve, and is simply luminous, playing off Lancaster with perfect calibration.

But back to the musical. A musical can depend on songs to carry us through. And this one earned the 1964 Tony Award for best original score. So some people really like it. My view is that it has a so-so score with a couple of songs that make sitting through the rest of it less than a chore.

Some fine acting

So now, Ford’s. The good news first: Tracy Lynn Olivera as Lizzie. Long one of the area’s top musical performers, with outstanding work on most of the main stages here, she brings us an indelible Lizzie that seems her own creation. She’s radiant, multi-dimensional, and a joy to listen to.

Olivera bridges the gaps between Lizzie’s rather intense vulnerabilities and her ultimate strength. She does so with so much skill you can’t even sense the seams. This Lizzie is thoroughly modern, and she is not so much insecure as realistic (in her eyes) about her appeal to men.

There is also fine work from Kevin McAllister as File, the emotionally-repressed local lawman for whom Lizzie has designs, actively encouraged by her rowdy brothers (Gregory Maheu, Stephen Gregory Smith) and her steady, loving father (Christopher Bloch).

McAllister’s work radiates the sense that there’s an emotional cauldron bubbling away beneath the bland, controlled exterior. That explains Lizzie’s interest and holds ours. McAllister also possesses a powerful voice that he gets to fully use. And that enchants the audience in a couple of songs.

The bad news now comes in the form of a question: What the heck was director Marcia Milgrom Dodge thinking? She is capable of transcendent work. Her 2009 production of Ragtime at the Kennedy Center was electrifying, and it went on to Broadway, earning her a Tony Award nomination.

But here it is as if she couldn’t decide what to do with this show and just threw a few things at the wall to see what sticks. The first act is listless and flat, the pacing uneven. Her choreography looks like every high-school production of Oklahoma! you have ever seen. You know, all thumbs in belt loops and kicking’ and stompin’ those cowboy-booted heels, yee-hah.

She finally pulls it together in act two, with much better energy and less shuffling. And she allows her lead actors to shine above the material, giving in to the songs.

But her real mistake is what she has made leading man Ben Crawford do as Starbuck, the con man who promises rain and romance. He may be a darkly handsome devil, but you feel sorry for him as he prances around, rolling his eyes and looking like former Texas Governor Rick Perry channeling Truman Capote. The next minute he’s Cary Grant. Oops…Truman’s back. It’s not pretty.

This foppish Starbuck is mixed-up, but mostly a decaf latte, up against Olivera’s bracing double-shot of espresso. Crawford is unable to make us understand why Starbuck is able to captivate the level-headed Lizzie as he careens between effeminate, flamboyant posturing and quiet moments of potent conviction and self-assurance. I miss the hint of menace in Starbuck, the questions he can provoke.

Christopher Bloch’s work is a salve, his steady presence as rancher H.L. Curry a ballast that provides some welcome reality.

Likable music

Now, the music. The first couple of songs are typical examples from the period, what a couple of Broadway writers think is hoe-down music from cowboy country.

Song number three, however, “Lover, Don’t Turn,” sounds like it’s from a different show. It’s a show tune, its clean lines a nice showcase for Oliver’s clear, expressive voice.

Crawford shows us what he’s capable of when not hampered by misdirection as he gins up some first-act energy in “Rain Song,” a number that wakes up the company and the eight-piece orchestra.

Bloch’s paternal H.C. leads us to the song “Raunchy,” where he helps Oliver show us her country-queen chops in a blast of honky-tonk. Our toes finally get to tappin’.

“A Man and a Woman,” is not the famous song from the French film of that name back in the 1960s. But it is a mildly pretty ballad nicely handled by McAllister and Olivera. At the end of Act One, Olivera brings down the house as Lizzie’s hellish vision of life as an “old maid” goes positively operatic.

Olivera’s range is clearly demonstrated when she moves on to “Simple Little Things” in act two. This is a contemporary-sounding, Sondheim-esque number that has some clear poignancy. Her introspective work here clears the way for moments that follow with Starbuck.

In the second half of the show, the director allows the shtick to be more organic, and the entire effort seems less dated. Thus, dialogue like this has impact:

Lizzie: It’s no good to live in your dreams.

Starbuck: It’s no good to live outside them, either.

Regarding 110 in the Shade, let’s put it this way: It’s not the heat, it’s the validity.

110 in the Shade continues through May 14 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW, Washington, D.C.

Showtimes: Mondays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. with matinees Fridays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. (except May 6 and 13 at noon).

There will be audio-described performances on Tuesday, April 19 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 30 at 2 p.m. A sign-interpreted performance is scheduled for Thursday, April 28 at 7:30 p.m. and a captioned performance will occur Saturday, May 7 at 2 p.m. 

Tickets are available at www.fords.org and Ticketmaster: (800) 982-2787. Prices range from $22 to $71. (Ticketmaster fees may apply.) Discounted matinee tickets in the orchestra section are available to those 60 or older for $34 (weekend) or $31 (weekday).

Ford’s Theatre is accessible to persons with disabilities, offering wheelchair-accessible seating and restrooms, and audio enhancement.

For more information, visit www.fords.org or call the box office at (202) 347-4833.