Musical Theatre West’s One-Night-Only concert staged reading of 110 In The Shade, the 1963 Broadway musical adaptation of N. Richard Nash’s perennial favorite The Rainmaker, proved an entertaining, particularly well-timed treat for this reviewer, having only one week prior seen the very play which set the musical ball in motion.

Like its straight-play source, 110 In The Shade revolves around still-single Lizzie Curry (Shannon Warne), who has come back to her farm town home from a week spent with relatives in the quest of a husband, an empty-handed return to the family homestead that has her despairing of ever finding someone who’ll appreciate the intelligent, plain-spoken, straight-speaking woman she is.

H.C. (Sam Nisbett), her “Pop,” has been telling Lizzie since she was a little girl that she’s smart and beautiful. Kid brother Jimmy (Jordan Lamoureux) loves his big sis so much that he’d do anything to help find her a beau. Only older brother Noah (Danny Blaylock) sees Lizzie as he believes she really is—a plain girl that no one will come to on a white horse and snatch up in his arms and marry. Since Lizzie always seems to say and do exactly the wrong thing when she’s with a man, this still young woman’s self esteem is so low that you can imagine which family member she believes.

The local deputy Sherriff, File (Chris Warren Gilbert), seems the most likely beau for Lizzie, but he’s been burned by love (the so-called “widower” is in fact a divorcé whose wife walked out on him), and is not about to be hurt again, or even to accept an invitation to picnic with the Currys.

The Rainmaker unfolds over the course of a single hot summer day and night in the middle of a long and demoralizing Great Depression drought. If ever there was a time for a miracle, this is that time, and just when everyone has lost hope of ever seeing a drop of precipitation again, who should arrive but a man named Starbuck (Robert J. Townsend), promising rain for a mere 100 dollars.

Noah of course believes not a word of Starbuck’s promises, Jimmy is eager to give it a try, and Lizzie is the most skeptical of all. H.C., however, pays Starbuck the whole hundred bucks ($1500 today when adjusted for inflation). “You’re a liar and a con man,” he tells Starbuck, “but I’m going to write it as a gamble. I’ve lost more’n that in poker on a Saturday night.”

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that Lizzie will eventually melt under Starbuck’s spell. Still, there are surprises to be had and discoveries to be made, by both Nash’s characters and by the audience, especially those who know Lizzie, Starbuck, File and the rest only from Nash’s straight play or its 1965 film adaptation starring Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster.

In adapting his play for the musical stage, book writer Nash has added a chorus of townspeople whose harmonious voices blend to sing about “Another Hot Day” or back up Starbuck’s “The Rain Song” or celebrate that “Everything Beautiful Happens At Night.” The play’s indoor setting has been moved outdoors, with the depot, the local picnic area and bandstand, and Starbuck’s “rain wagon” taking the place of the Curry farm and tack house. Added too is the previously only talked-about character of Snookie (Tessa Grady), whose “Little Red Hat” is now not only the object of Jimmy’s pursuit, but the title of a double entendre-full Act Two showstopper. (Missing from the equation is Sheriff Thomas, File having been promoted from Deputy to Main Man.)

Jones’ lyrics propel the plot as first-rate musical theater lyrics should, many of them coming directly from Nash’s Rainmaker script. Schmidt’s music is every bit as lovely as it was in The Fantasticks, the best known Jones-Schmidt collaboration, and reaches the exquisite in “Is It Really Me?” and “Melisande,” showcases for Warne’s and Townsend’s exquisite pipes. “You’re Not Foolin’ Me” and “A Man And A Woman” give Warne a memorable duet with each of her two leading men. The bouncy, up-tempo “Lizzie’s Coming Home Today” and “Poker, Polka” and the gentle, heartfelt “Love, Don’t Turn Away” and “Simple Little Things” are gems too.

Director Michael Betts once again proved himself an expert at putting together a bang-up show in the mere twenty-five hours of rehearsal time allowed by Actors’ Equity for a Concert Staged Reading.

StageSceneLA favorite Warne sang as gorgeously as ever despite a seasonal bug that reduced her rehearsal time by one full day, giving a performance that grew richer as the reading progressed, her heart-wrenching “Old Maid” enough to bring shivers.

MTW couldn’t have found two better choices for Starbuck and File than Townsend and Gilbert, the former like a ray of dazzling light come into Lizzie’s lonely life, the latter as solid as the oak she wouldn’t mind clinging too if only File would give her a chance. Both SoCal musical theater stars delivered the goods vocally as well, joining voices with Warne’s in the soaring “Wonderful Music.”

Nisbett’s compassionate H.C. and Blaylock’s tell-it-like-it-is Noah both gave performances rooted in a love for Lizzie, with Lamoureux an infectiously likable Jimmy and Grady once again proving herself a star-on-the-rise as the fast and frisky Snookie.

Providing expert vocal support as the Three Point townspeople were Jackie Cox, Rob Hoyt, Kristen Lamoureux, William Martinez, Jennifer McLoughlin-Hoyt, Mike Montminy, and Jennifer Wilcove.

Following last month’s reading of Legs Diamond with its nine-piece orchestra, musical director extraordinaire Julie Lamoureux’s decision to strip orchestrations down to a single piano (accompanied at times by daughter Kristen on flute) was a savvy one, both financially and artistically, the stripped-down accompaniment a perfect match for the intimate story that 110 In The Shade is at heart. Having the cast provide occasional percussion à la John Doyle was a nice touch too.

There’s very little dancing inherent in 110 In The Shade, but Daniel A. Smith’s musical staging was just what this concert staged reading asked for, with a special tip of the hat to (Jordan) Lamoureux’s and Grady’s “Little Red Hat.”

Speaking of which … asking the audience to imagine Snookie’s bonnet rather than have it sitting on her head was the evening’s one, inexplicable goof. On the other hand, the reading’s minimal costume and lighting designs were just right.

Betts and David Lamoureux are Reiner Reading Series producers for MTW Executive Directgor/Producer Paul Garman. Guillermo Parga was stage manager and Alex Jordan sound engineer.

This reviewer was fortunate enough to see the Original Broadway Cast (Inga Swenson, Ray Danton, Stephen Douglass, Will Geer, and a teenaged Lesley Ann Warren among them) when the L.A. Civic Light Opera brought 110 In The Shade to Los Angeles way back in 1964. The years have been kind to the musical (and hopefully to yours truly). Now isn’t it time for one of our local 99-seat theaters like to give 110 In The Shade the fully-staged intimate production it deserves? As MTW’s reading makes perfectly clear, it’s a musical that works quite wonderfully even without the Broadway glitz.

(Next up for MTW’s Reiner Reading Series—The Secret Garden, followed by Kismet and City Of Angels.)

University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
January 20, 2013

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