Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Turn Up The Heat

"110 in the Shade" presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, April 21, 2007

Most famous for "The Fantasticks," Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones collaborated with N. Richard Nash for its first Broadway run in 1963-64, based on Mr. Nash's play "The Rainmaker."

This Roundabout Theatre production is its first Broadway revival and while the book and score are solid, I'm unsure why this didn't turn up as an Encores! production instead. Based on information from fellow theatre-goers, Mr. Nash apparently didn't make significant changes to this adaptation from the original script, which explains why so much of the score repeats information from the dialogue that led up to it. Messrs. Schmidt's and Jones' music and lyrics are certainly enjoyable, but our result is a production that lingers for two and a half hours.

As for the casting, some very talented people are involved. Audra McDonald takes the role of the spinster, Lizzie. Playing her father is the ever-solid John Cullum. Her brothers Noah and Jimmy are played by Chris Butler and Bobby Steggert, respectively.

Ms. McDonald is in beautiful voice for this role - as she seems to be in any role she performs. Despite this, I couldn't help feeling that she's ultimately miscast. Her first song, "Love, Don't Turn Away" is sweet and tender. Even with her thick dark hair pulled back (not nearly severely enough) she still exudes an attractiveness that undercuts the role of this plain, ordinary looking woman longing for love in a dried up Texas town. There too, we don't get to see Lizzie's vulnerability until the second act. By then it's hard to distinguish vulnerability from desperation.

Mr. Cullum's H. C. Curry, Lizzie's father, has realized early on that since tradition (and to a certain point, common sense) has given up on Lizzie, he's willing to entertain new possibilities as to how his only daughter can find happiness.

Mr. Butler's Noah, Lizzie's older brother is much slower to give up on tradition, but more for his own comfort than hers. Also single, having this spinster for a sister provides him with cooking and cleaning without the entanglements or responsibilities of a wife. Younger brother Jim, eagerly and delightfully played by Mr. Steggert, is ahead of his father about finding a man for his sister.

The only local candidate is the local sheriff, File, played by Christopher Innvar. He's got the tall, dark and handsome thing down well. Combine that with a fine voice and subtle but effective performance and it becomes a question as to why Lizzie would ever look anywhere else.

Well, the script brings along Starbuck, a drifter/con man billing himself as a rainmaker who's arrived just to help the poor town end their draught out of the goodness of his heart (and $100 from whomever is willing to shell the cash out). Steve Kazee's Starbuck comes across like semi-skinnied-down Meatloaf crossed with Black Bart (including hat and vest). What ought to be a performance of mystical charisma never seems to arrive. Mr. Kazee seems to have a good voice, but doesn't seem well-suited to this score. Also, he never reveals that inner spark needed to attract others to him. I'd like to see Mr. Innvar in his role for one performance.

Having been in previews for a week when I attended the show, I was surprised that there seemed to still be a problem with lines from time to time - most noticeable from Mr. Cullum and Ms. McDonald.

Director Lonny Price has taken a fairly soft approach with this show. It seems to be missing a certain edge, falling back to predictability as the events of the story unfold. Santo Loquasto has created an excellent foundation with the sun-like turntable stage and an over sized sun which hangs ominously over the set. Christopher Akerlind's lighting hints at the heat only during the opening of the show. Once the story gets moving, everything seems to cool off much too quickly into pastel blues and greens.

It's a solid production, but in the end, an unremarkable one. Maybe they can spark a little life into the show by the time it opens.

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