Thursday, May 2, 2019

"110 in the Shade"

110 in the Shade
N. Richard Nash (Book); Harvey Schmidt (Music); Tom Jones (Lyrics)
Based on the Play, The Rainmaker, by N. Richard Nash

Elliot Hanson, James Schott, Andrea Dennison-Laufer & Jesse Caldwell
Even in the best of productions – like the outstanding 2007 Roundabout revival in New York starring the incomparable Audra McDonald along with Steve Kazee and John Cullum – it takes a miracle for 110 in the Shade not to come off as The Music Man-“Lite.”  After all, N. Richard Nash’s storyline for both the musical and his original, 1954 play, The Rainmaker, also details a huckster coming to a town with a promise to solve a big problem – in this case a drought – through a cock-eyed method that should send everyone running (this time the suggestion of drumming, flagging, and rattling into the cloudless sky).  And of course there is once again the local young woman who seems destined to spinsterhood – a fate deemed of course worse than death in both 1950’s storylines – and who is clearly going to fall in love with the new arrival who is a big fake on the run from the law.  But unlike The Music Man, Harvey Schmidt (music) and Tom Jones (lyrics) failed in coming up with songs like ”Seventy Six Trombones,” “Wells Fargo Wagon,” or “Til There Was You,” thus also failing to lift the predictable, too-familiar story to something more memorable.

The miracle that saved the 2007 New York production unfortunately does not repeat itself in the current 42nd Street Moon revival of 110 in the Shade.  While there are certainly moments of sheer fun and some noteworthy individual performances, the normal Moon level of consistent excellence musically and choreographically is too often missing, with the 42nd Street Moon production suffering its own temporary drought.  The show is mildly entertaining and engaging throughout but rarely rises to a level where audience response is more than just a polite patter.

Andrea Dennison-Laufer & Brian Watson
The show opens promisingly enough with Sheriff File (Brian Watson) bringing one of the night’s two best voices to bear in leading the people of this Depression-era, Southwest town in “Another Hot Day,” where raised harmonies reach their peak in singing wave after wave of “when the rain comes.”  The menfolk of the Curry family also have raised hopes that daughter/sister Lizzie is about to get off the arriving train with her newly acquired betrothed, their having sent her on a hunt for one to distant family members in a nearby town.  Their excited eagerness of her return becomes a jumping, stomping, circling creation of choreographer Scottie Woodard as they rip out “Lizzie’s Coming Home.” 

Each Curry male quickly establishes his show-long persona.  Jimmy (Elliot Hanson) is an excitable, life-loving puppy dog kind of guy whose testosterone-bursting energy fills the stage whenever he is present and whose vocals have a pleasing if not perfect effect of freshness.  On the opposite end of the scale is older brother, Noah (James Schott), who brings a resounding voice big enough to burst any bubble of optimism and hope with his skeptical, oft-cynical listing of stark realities.  Father H.C. (Jesse Caldwell) stays more in the background as much as he can, trying to maintain some peace between the warring brothers and not making much impression one way or the other – especially in this particular production.

Andrea Dennison-Laufer
When Lizzie returns alone and with no prospects, the brothers plot how to make a match with Sheriff Fife, a divorcé and town loner who has unsuccessfully tried to fool everyone he is actually a widower.  Even with a rather hilarious, knee-slapping “Poker Polka” where the boys tempt him in every way they can to come have lunch with Lizzie, Brian Watson brings his point-direct, fine vocals as File to say no, no, and no. 

As it turns out, Lizzie Curry has convinced herself – after too many experiences of being ignored by the boys of her town – that she is not beautiful and will probably never marry.  And while she tells her dad, “I am so sick and tired of being me,” the sting of hearing brother Noah bluntly tell her, “Lizzie, you are plain” and “You will be an old maid” is a verdict that she is clearly not ready to hear and maybe not to accept. 

While less appealing in many of her musical numbers where over-singing (sometimes near-screaming) too often mars her delivered message, Andrea Dennison-Laufer is totally successful in her role as actor as she embodies a young woman who struggles with her own self-image as well as the well-meaning but too-controlling efforts of her family to make her happy.  Her Lizzie grows in front of our eyes as she becomes more and more determined to find her own route to happiness – a route that even she seems to find incredulous ins taking but one that causes a visible transformation to occur as Lizzie comes to understand what “beautiful” really means for her.

The Cast of 110 in the Shade
That route comes in the form of a big-boasting, wild-promising Bill Starbuck whose Las Vegas-like entrance in glitzy coat of purple fires the entire town into revival ecstasy in a stage-packed, frenzy-filled “The Rain Song.”  The suddenly arriving Starbuck quickly finds willing converts galore to believe that for $100 he can produce rain in twenty-four hours.  The one person (besides Noah, of course) who does not believe him is Lizzie, and it will take all that Keith Pinto as Bill Starbuck can muster to win this last but most important member of his believing congregation. 

Keith Pinto
Aiding greatly in that effort is the evening’s finest singing voice, with Keith Pinto delivering in Act Two in a searching, lonely voice an “Evenin’ Star” that finally echoes magnificently with the quality audiences expect from 42nd Street Moon.  His Starbuck often sings looking with a half-smile into some distant horizon, searching for a dream he begins to hope has finally arrived in the form of this woman who easily matches him with her strong will, sense of independence, and ability to steer her own destiny rather than be led by the morals and wishes of others.  The range of vocal prowess that Mr. Pinto brings is further witnessed in a highly animated, story-rich song, “Melisande,” in which he woos Lizzie by encouraging her to find a new dream and follow it.

The Set Design of Brian Watson & Lighting of Michael Palumbo
One of the issues for this production of 110 in the Shade is that the intimate Moon stage itself becomes too crammed when the entire cast of sixteen is on stage, particularly given the real estate necessary for the inspired set design of Brian Watson (a stage full of Great Plains-plain wooden structures and fencing, including a dominating, twirling wind mill and an accompanying water tank).  That lack of room makes some of the full-cast choreography difficult to pull off without looking like everyone is about to bump into and run over others.  But Michael Palumbo’s lighting design does totally work wonderfully against the scenic setting of Mr. Watson, with touches like focused, downward spots from metal shaded lamps and beautifully dappled shadows on a stage that change hues as day becomes dusk becomes night.

Where the Nash/Schmidt/Jone musical and this 42nd Street Moon version come together for the best moment is in the next-to-last, plot-climactic number, “Wonderful Music.”  Here, Lizzie’s strength of character really comes to the fore as Starbuck and File vie in their respective actor’s big and convincing voices for her love.  The staging by Director Josh Marx and the performances of all three main characters are an evening highlight and a great way to leave a good, audience impression as the full cast performs also at its evening’s vocal best for a reprise finale of “The Rain Song.”

In one final note never to be overlooked at 42nd Street Moon, the piano accompaniment of Music Director Dave Dobrusky is once again superb, adding its own effecting touches to enhance and elevate an otherwise soon-forgettable score. 

Rating: 3 E

110 in the Shade continues through May 12, 2019 in production by 42nd Street Moon at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-255-8207.

Photos by Ben Krantz Studio

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