Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review: 110 in the Shade Casts a Magical Spell

L to R: Treva Tegtmeier, Tim Hodgin and Skylar Adams.
Photos by Lindsay Schnebly

Though the term is rarely used today, there was an era when ending up an old maid was the worst possible scenario for a woman. Hard times and modest dreams made finding a husband a requirement for happiness, especially during the Depression when people lived off the land, family meant all, and survival depended on the support of one’s neighbors in times of need.

In 110 in the Shade, based on N. Richard Nash’s play The Rainmaker, and later adapted by Nash, Harvey Schmidt (music) and Tom Jones (lyrics) for the musical stage, Lizzie Curry (Treva Tegtmeier) finds herself approaching the far side of marrying age with no prospects and little hope. Though she is a plain woman, it is her blunt personality and refusal to be vulnerable that keeps any man she meets at arm’s length, rather than her actual looks. Lizzie’s love life is in a drought and if something doesn’t change soon she’ll live out her days alone while suffering the humiliation of being a dreaded old maid.

It’s a drought also reflected in the parched land. 110 degree weather is causing the cattle to die and stifling the town, and that means everyone is worried. So worried that when a charismatic drifter named Starbuck (Skylar Adams) appears promising he can bring rain within 24 hours, Lizzie’s father H.C. (Tim Hodgin) is ready to shell out 100 of his hard-earned dollars to make it happen. She and her brother Noah (Jason Peter Kennedy) are skeptical; youngest brother Jimmy (David Crane) believes in the dreamer; and File (Michael Downing), the sheriff, is on the chase to run him out of town as soon as he can catch him.

As the deception plays out, hearts open and each of the characters comes to a new realization about his or her place in the world. It is a sweet story about the chances we take and the paths we don’t that add up to make a life. Director Richard Israel brings it all into focus with simple elegance and an attention to detail that maximizes the strengths of his company.

Dated viewpoints on the necessity of marriage aside, I adore this musical. The score is sweepingly epic, with rich, beautiful ballads that capture the yearning of isolated individuals whose hearts are aching but can’t cross the bridge. Tegtmeier does lovely work with the bulk of Lizzie’s songs including “Love Don’t Turn Away,” “Simple Little Things” and “Is It Really Me?” although the Act I finale “Old Maid” wobbles a bit out of her control. She has the pinched look of a woman who knows her life will always be lived in sensible shoes and a likable quality that makes us root for her happy ending, whether or not she will actually get it.

Adams fresh-faced Starbuck plays up the carnival barker side of the rainmaker, choosing to boisterously strong-arm the townspeople into hiring him rather than reeling them in with a more seductive array of charms. He’s working harder than he needs to but when he relaxes into the softer moments – mostly in his later scenes with Lizzie – there is an innocence he brings to the role that is unexpectedly sweet.

Kennedy and Downing both give fine performances; Kennedy, as Lizzie’s forthright brother Noah, who loves his sister but always says the wrong thing at the wrong time, and Downing as a man whose jaded view of love keeps him distanced from an entire town. He also pulls a mean punch, with Crane on the receiving end, in a well-played serious moment that contrasts with Crane’s normally broad comedy scenes.

Hodgin is terrific in the role of Lizzie’s father, corralling his sons with the sure hand of a rancher in control of an unruly herd. He and the boys bring a delightful sense of fun to Lizzie’s coming home song and later, when they try to nonchalantly entice File into coming to their picnic as a date for Lizzie in “Poker Polka,” they go from charming to downright hilarious. The song - and many others - also benefits from Julie Hall’s amusing character-driven choreography. Hodgin and Tegtmeier’s tender rapport shows the very real bond between father and daughter, though as a single parent he doesn’t always know what to do to make her happy.

Musically the show succeeds in the always challenging task of balancing the sound between the singers and the band (credited to Cameron Combe). In addition to being able to hear and understand every word, musical director Bryan Blaskie uses subtle dynamics and musical phrasing to achieve a beautifully polished choral sound. (And I do love a good choral sound). What that does is give the scenes movement and helps maintain a natural flow in the transitions from one to the next. 

Stephen Gifford’s scenic design creates a warm and natural small town atmosphere as panels surround the audience with rolling hills and fences, bringing the great outdoors inside. Always one to give the space a unique twist, Gifford’s most creative touch for this production is placing the band onstage in a corner under a wooden water tower reminiscent of the TV series Petticoat Junction. When I realized what it was, it made me laugh. Brilliant. Costume designer Vicki Conrad’s vintage print dresses, sturdy shoes, and everyday men’s work clothes bring to life the 1930s sensible world of hard-working good people.

110 in the Shade was originally produced on Broadway in 1963 and although it never reached the level of acclaim Schmidt & Jones won for The Fantasticks, it did receive four Tony Award nominations, including Best Composer and Best Lyricist. That productions cast included Will Geer, head of the Geer family and founder of Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, in the role of H.C. Curry. A 2007 Broadway revival received five Tony nominations and two Drama Desk nominations with Audra McDonald receiving a Drama Desk Award for her role as Lizzie.

Now Actors Co-op offers a charming production of this beautiful musical that will wrap you up in its magical spell as the final moments resolve. The smile you take home is a bonus.

Skylar Adams (center) and the ensemble

Skylar Adams and Treva Tegtmeier

L-R: Michael Downing, Tim Hodgin and Treva Tegtmeier 

The Ensemble of 110 In the Shade

May 9 - June 15, 2014
Actors Co-op
1760 N. Gower Street, Hollywood, CA 90028
Tickets: (323) 462-8460 or

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