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New York City Theater

"110 in the Shade"
Studio 54

The revival of “110 in the Shade” may not be top-tier stuff. Yet it has a lovely score by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones musical (they also wrote “The Fantasticks”), an affecting story and characters to care about.

Whatever it may or may not be, however, isn’t the point here. Rocketing the show into the stratosphere is a genuine, 24-carat, diamond-in-the-sky phenomenon named Audra McDonald. The woman is amazing. As Lizzie, a spinster seemingly doomed to be unhitched for the rest of her life, McDonald invests the character with intelligence and heartbreak.

From her first entrance, where she flings open a door, announcing with a hopeful grin that she is very much here, you recognize the insecurity beneath the bravado. Sadness and anguish vie with desperate humor. When McDonald lets out the stops with “Raunchy,” Lizzie’s attempt to become all kittenish and lowdown, you howl with glee while longing to take her in your arms and comfort her.

“110 in the Shade” is N. Richard Nash’s musical adaptation of his successful play, “The Rainmaker.” The tuner closely follows the play, a moving, warm evocation of small-town life.

Resigned to becoming an old maid, since the local sheriff is shy to the point of inaction, Lizzie is swept off her feet by a ingratiating stranger named Starbuck. He’s a con man who promises to bring rain to this parched Texas Panhandle. In the tradition of charming strangers everywhere, he also awakens libidos, even in a gal who can’t believe she’s desirable. To the consternation of her brothers, and the delight of her pappy, Lizzie blossoms.

Although director Lonny Price’s town is underpopulated and minimalist, its characters are busy as all get-out. As Lizzie’s father, the indestructible John Cullum is dry, reasonable, trusting and lovable. Christopher Innvar is a stalwart sheriff, Steve Kazee a seductive Starbuck and Chris Butler a strong, well-meaning brother.

But it’s Bobby Steggert as Lizzie’s other brother who gives a star-making performance. His “Little Red Hat” duet with Carla Duren is a delight.

Yet nothing, nothing, can outshine McDonald. As Lizzie, her longing for life, undercut by despair, leavened with pitiless pragmatism and coupled with that shimmering voice is wondrous.

-- David A. Rosenberg
May 27, 2007

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