Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Singing in the Rain
By Josh R
The blazing afternoon sun beats oppressively down on the tiny Texas hamlet of Three Points, penetrating deep into the crevices of the parched, cracked earth as the withering crops and listless cattle wilt under its merciless glare. Curious then that it isn’t the sun, but a lone, shimmering star which burns the brightest in The Roundabout Theatre Company’s enchanting revival of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 110 in the Shade, currently in previews at Studio 54. Three Points may be going through a dry spell, but as far as fans of Audra McDonald are concerned, the drought is officially over.
This is not to say that Ms. McDonald, a four-time Tony-winner most recently honored for her performance in 2004’s A Raisin in the Sun, has exactly been missing in action. Since her galvanizing debut in Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed production of Carousel some 13 years ago, the preternaturally gifted actress and singer has graced many a production with her finely-honed dramatic abilities and pristine vocals — for the uninitiated, she is the possessor of what is generally acknowledged to be the most dazzling mezzo-soprano voice to be heard on Broadway in several generations. Her career has not proceeded without acclaim, as her numerous accolades attest (her trophy case runneth over into Julie Harris’ living room). That notwithstanding, some theatergoers, myself included, have been given to wonder if the extravagant critical attention lavished upon the actress has been largely a product of favoritism. The fawning that greeted her breakthrough turn as Carrie Pipperidge, Carousel's frolicsome soubrette, was well-earned; like everyone else who saw the production, I was bowled over by her virtuosity in the role. The bar was set awfully high during that first turn at bat, and the opportunities that contemporary musical theater — if not a dwindling art form, then an increasingly stingy one — offers its most celebrated talents are notably few.
Until now. If anyone thought the actress was in danger of coasting on her reputation for the remainder of her career — showing up for work, trilling a few bars and snapping up Tony medallions like some giant diva-shaped magnet — the glorious working of talent and emotion being unleashed nightly at Studio 54 should unequivocally and permanently put the matter to rest. Ms. McDonald effortlessly surpasses her achievement in Carousel — her talent has matured and her command of the stage has become more absolute, while her burnished soprano remains as coruscating as ever.
Of course, a star can only be good as the material allows her to be, and the actress’s unqualified success in her current venture owes itself in no small part to the strength of the vehicle. 110 in the Shade , adapted by Richard Nash from his 1954 play The Rainmaker, considers the plight of Lizzie Curry, a lonely spinster languishing from neglect on the drought-stricken Texas prairie. When a colorful con artist, bearing the preposterous name of Starbuck, arrives on the scene offering the promise of rain, she is markedly skeptical. What begins as a relationship of mutual discomfort and mistrust ripens into a delicate union of two kindred spirits who find a renewed sense of hope in what the other has to offer. Defenses fall by the wayside — just as Starbuck enables the disenchanted Lizzie to let down her guard, realize her inner beauty and embrace the possibility of romance, she leads him to the gentle understanding that man cannot subsist on dreams alone. It’s hokey, sentimental stuff, but with a homespun charm that’s just about impossible to resist — I’ve always had a soft spot for the 1956 film version of The Rainmaker featuring Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster, which enjoys a strong following among romantics. A bit of sap is just fine, provided it doesn’t congeal into syrup, and both 110 in the Shade and the play on which it’s based are sweet without succumbing to stickiness.
While the book of the musical adheres very closely to the source play, the chief attraction of 110 in the Shade has always been its criminally underappreciated score. With music and lyrics by Jones and Schmidt, the team responsible for The Fantasticks, Shade’s sublime fusion of Western motifs and soaring melodies is reminiscent of Oklahoma! in both richness and scope. The premiere production opened to a warm reception in 1964, but was more or less eclipsed by the season’s two monster hits, Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl — the former dominated that year’s awards presentations, although Shade managed several Tony nominations, including one for its star, the beguiling lyric soprano Inga Swenson (later known to television fans as Benson’s vinegary cook, Gretchen Kraus). It’s a work that has long been aching for rediscovery, and with the Roundabout’s artful restoration, it receives its full due as an authentic American classic.
Lonny Price’s production, though modestly mounted, is beautifully designed and executed. While color-blind casting can occasionally be a distraction in period pieces, in this context, you forget about it very quickly — the diverse ensemble functions on such a harmonious level that you cease to notice. I must admit (with some shame) that going into this production, I had a hunch that Ms. McDonald would be good rather than great. While taking it for granted that she would excel in applying her lustrous soprano to Jones and Schimdt’s gemlike score, I wasn’t entirely convinced that she was ideally suited to the role of an insecure, self-effacing farm woman of the type to be overlooked (she’s such a robust physical and vocal presence, asking her to hide her light under a bushel seemed a bit of a stretch). These doubts proved to be unfounded, for the actress so skillfully charts her character’s physical and emotional journey from apprehensive wallflower to ethereal Venus as to allay any fears that she might not be up to the challenge. She has the right quality of tight-lipped, self-conscious stubbornness in the scenes where Lizzie is required to be “plain,” and when her wistful modesty melts away and a look of rapturous release overtakes her features, she is positively incandescent. This Lizzie blossoms into full flower before our eyes, and it’s no wonder; as the enigmatic stranger who weakens her resistance, Steve Kazee could stir up feelings of passion in even the stoniest of hearts. With a mesmerizing combination of virility and mysticism, his Starbuck doesn’t have the boisterous energy Burt Lancaster brought to the film version of The Rainmaker, or the sly playfulness of Woody Harrelson in the 1999 Broadway revival — but he is a much more mysterious and erotic presence, and there’s a genuine sense of danger and sexual charge to his scenes with McDonald. What he lacks in bluster he makes up for in animal magnetism, and the seduction scene has an otherworldly quality, at once both provocative and lyrical, made all the more pronounced by the palpable chemistry between the actors. With all due respect to the other Lizzies and Starbucks I’ve seen, never have any other two actors in these roles generated as much heat.
As the sheriff who serves as a reticent rival for Lizzie’s affections, Christopher Innvar subtly conveys the bruised emotions which inform the character’s stoicism, while an excellent John Cullum provides a warm, folksy turn as the Curry patriarch. As Lizzie’s older brother Noah, the hard-nosed pragmatist, Chris Butler succumbs to whininess a bit too frequently, but as the brash, dim-witted Jimmy, the youngest of the Curries, an elfin bundle of energy named Bobby Steggart is an engagingly buoyant presence. He is well matched with the equally animated Carla Duren as the giggly Snooky McGuire — they make for an appealingly pixilated pair of lovebirds (as a side note for you trivia hounds, the part was played in the original 1964 production by an 18-year-old Lesley Ann Warren in her professional debut). The ensemble members are well chosen and collectively create a believable portrait of small-town life.
And what of the rain, you ask? For those expecting a torrent, you won’t leave feeling short-changed…those with front row seats should come prepared to find themselves slightly drenched by curtain call (woolens are not advised). Impressive as the waterworks display may be, it’s nothing compared to the production’s greatest special effect — its leading lady, who is a marvel to behold. Even though I’ve listened to the original cast recording many times, hearing McDonald’s breathtaking interpretation of the these songs — particularly “Raunchy,” a mischievous send-up of feminine seduction technique, the beguiling reverie of “Is It Really Me?”, and most especially, the agonizing, heart-rending lament that serves to close the first act, “Old Maid” — is akin to hearing them performed for the first time. Pondering her changing fortunes near the end of 110 in the Shade, Lizzie Curry remarks how “You look up in the sky and you long for a star and you know you’ll never get it…then one night, you look down and there it is, shining in your hands.” As the star of this production stands downstage center at the evening’s conclusion, arms outstretched, letting the rain and the applause wash over her, the sentiment has been fulfilled for the audience.