Director extraordinaire Richard Israel and an impressive cast of Los Angeles triple-threats have joined forces at Actors Co-op for an inspired intimate revival of 110 In The Shade, the 1963 Broadway musical adaptation of N. Richard Nash’s perennial favorite The Rainmaker.

Photo7_sm Like its straight-play source, 110 In The Shade revolves around still-single Lizzie Curry (Treva Tegtmeier), 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, unpretentious, straight-speaking woman she is.

H.C. (Tim Hodgin), her “Pop,” has been telling Lizzie since she was a little girl that she’s smart and beautiful and brother Jimmy (David Crane) loves his big sis so much that he’d do anything to help find her a beau, which leaves only tell-it-like-it-is brother Noah (Jason Peter Kennedy) to see Lizzie as he believes she really is—a plain woman that no one is ever going come to on a white horse and snatch up in his arms and marry. Since the self-esteem-challenged Lizzie always seems to say and do exactly the wrong thing when she’s with a man, it’s no wonder which family member she believes.

Local deputy Sheriff File (Michael Downing) 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.

Photo6_sm 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 young hotshot named Starbuck (Skylar Adams), promising rain for a mere 100 dollars.

Noah of course believes not a word of Starbuck’s outrageous promises, Jimmy is eager to give rainmaking 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 off as a gamble. I’ve lost more’n that in poker on a Saturday night.”

Photo1_sm 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, later adapted for the big screen with Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster in the leading roles.

Photo5_sm 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 (Rachel Hirshee), 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 Lizzie’s “Is It Really Me?” and Starbuck’s “Melisande.” “You’re Not Foolin’ Me” and “A Man And A Woman” give Lizzie 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.

Photo2_sm Source material as rich and rewarding as this virtually guarantees something out of the ordinary, but with director Israel working his magic as he did most recently in Floyd Collins and previously for Actors Co-op in Merrily We Roll Along and Big River, audiences are guaranteed something downright extraordinary.

The Crossley Theatre’s three-quarter thrust stage has cast members not only exiting and entering through the aisles but performing in them as well, giving the production a “You Are There” quality that no Broadway staging could provide, and with actors close enough to the front row to reach out and touch, Israel and company give this 110 In The Shade the intimacy of a straight play, with richly-layered performances to match.

Photo3_sm The wonderful Tegtmeier makes a welcome return to the Actors Co-op musical stage, investing Lizzie with equal parts aching loneliness and indomitable spirit in a performance of dramatic power and depth, with just enough self-deprecating humor to season the mix, and a soprano by turns delicate and dramatic.

Newcomer Adams’ rock-star charisma and looks make him an inspired choice for Starbuck, a character so otherworldly that a captivated town falls instantly under his spell, the menfolk every bit as much as the ladies. Since Adams also convinces us that Starbuck might actually be an honest man at heart, it’s no wonder Lizzie finds herself believing the improbability of his words, and the romantic/sexual chemistry between Adams and Tegtmeier is palpable.

Downing breathes authentic life into everyman Sheriff File, whose salt-of-the earth ordinariness plays in perfect contrast with Starbuck’s star power. Hodgin’s folksy, paternally loving H.C. and Kennedy’s smoldering, straight-shooting Noah are beautifully layered performances as well.

And then there is Crane’s irresistibly irrepressible Jimmy, a star-in-the-making turn if there ever was one, and never more so than when playing opposite Hirshee’s saucy firecracker of a Snookie, the pair of recent UCLA Ray Bolger Musical Theater Program grads making “Little Red Hat” every bit the showstopper it is intended to be.

Photo4_sm While Crane and Hirshee get the show’s danciest roles, choreographer Julie Hall (who also plays townsperson Hannah Demby) gets the entire ensemble kicking up their heels and raising hands to heaven in the revival meeting-esque “The Rain Song,” and performing a “Hungry Men” that pokes droll fun at the male-female stereotypes of a place and era.

In addition to Hall, the Currys’ fellow citizens are brought to small-town life by an all-around terrific ensemble—Nicholas Acciani as George Toops, Emily Armstrong as Olive Barrow, Alex Denney as Toby Curtis, Mark Ostrander as Wally Skacks, Rory Patterson as Belinda Mackey, Courtney Potter as Mrs. Jensen, and Colby Salmon as Bo Dollivon, with special snaps to Denney for his vocal/guitar intro to the show-opening “Another Hot Day.”

A topnotch production design team has transformed the Crossley Theatre into the flat plains of a drought-ridden state thanks to Stephen Gifford’s “surround” scenic design, a look-and-sound completed to perfection by Mark Svastics’ vibrant lighting design, Vicki Conrad’s homespun, depression-era costumes (with a tip of Starbuck’s Fosse-esque hat to Conrad for the self-proclaimed rainmaker’s swell, sexy big-city wear), Tris Beezley’s period props, Krys Fehervari’s spot-on hair and make-up, and a sound design by Cameron Combe that insures that musicians never overpower cast members’ unmiked vocals.

Bryan Blaskie scores top marks for his musical direction, conducting the onstage band on piano, with guest conductor Evan Duffy on piano, Brian Cannady on drums, Xander Lott on bass, Brian Morales on clarinet and flute, and Kevin Rose on guitar and banjo. (The preshow country-folk concert is an added treat.)

110 In The Shade is produced by David Scales. Lauren Goyer is stage manager and Dana Lundblad assistant stage manager.

It’s been exactly ten years since Angelinos have been treated to a fully-staged professional production of 110 in the shade, not since the Pasadena Playhouse’s big-stage revival back in 2004. Richard Israel and Actors Co-op prove that this 1960s Broadway gem works equally well, if not even better, in a more intimate setting.

It’s a rare show that gets this reviewer’s highest recommendation—a return visit—but this one most certainly does. I love Actors Co-op’s 110 In The Shade so much that I’m going back again for more!

Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 9, 2014
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly

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