Having seen and been touched by nearly every version of this story that’s out there, I wondered what yet another iteration would reveal, and I discovered, well plenty! The creative casting and dynamic direction and choreography by Marcia Milgrom Dodge bring the story to life with cultural twists and turns.
Residents of a small parched town are so desperate for rain that they’ll listen to a fast-talker who promises to deliver what they want. This stranger from nowhere with more charm and charisma than they’ve seen in life convinces them that he can make it rain. Is he a con man as some accuse him of being, or is he the catalyst that can make magic happen, if everyone would just believe?
The Rainmaker by N. Richard Nash opened on Broadway in 1954, was made into a movie and, in 1963, became the Broadway musical 110 in the Shade, with a score by Fantastick’s composers Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.
Solidly single, Lizzie Curry’s nearly given up finding a partner, her brothers and father want her to be happy, and the town sheriff doesn’t know how to handle his own feelings of insecurity and pride. Can a Rainmaker shake them all up to innovative, new approaches in their lives? That’s the magic of the timeless Rainmaker story—it shows how characters react when reality is plunked down in their faces and then dares them to dream new possibilities. It’s a powerful premise that’s beautifully rendered in the Ford’s production.
As the town’s sheriff, File, black actor Kevin McAllister is a steadfast presence who bellows out the most glorious tones from his first entrance and proves that he’s more than capable of handling a leading role. Those who have followed him over the years have enjoyed his sonorous melodious voice. I can still hear his plaintive “How Long?” as part of Ford’s Civil War ensemble Freedom’s Songs. Here, he shows he’s got what it takes to portray a multi-layered character dealing with insecurity and hurt beneath his stern public demeanor.
Tracy Lynn Olivera gets to show off her powerful vocals and acting skills as she grabs Lizzie’s character with gusto. She’s also been a staple in the metro area and finally gets a chance to bring her performance to exciting new levels. Together, these artists bring down the house.
They are well supported by seasoned actor Christopher Bloch who brings a wholesome caring tenderness to his role as Lizzie’s dad, H.C., looking out for his boys, but with a special tenderness for his Lizzie. His reference to seeing glimpses of his wife in his little girl touches beyond the script.
Gregory Maheu as younger brother Jimmy is cute as a button with enough bounce and energy to cause a stampede. He’s quite a stepper, too, with neat dance moves nicely choreographed by director Marcia Milgrom Dodge. The talented Stephen Gregory Smith brings depth to older brother Noah who tempers his caustic rampages to his loved ones because he obviously cares so much about them.
I have sat through numerous reruns of the 1956 movie, “The Rainmaker” over the years. As a plain bespectacled little brown girl on the South side of Chicago, as far as I was concerned Starbuck (Burt Lancaster) was telling me I was beautiful through the little black and white TV screen. I also caught Audra McDonald’s terrific rendition in the Broadway 2007 production of 110 Degrees, and the year before after that, Arena Stage’s beautifully crafted Rainmaker. Through them all, the messages still resonate.
After all these years, one can ask why yet another production and what’s Ford’s take on the story? Well, just watching the blind casting added a special poignancy that is palpable. McAllister’s File has the respect of the townspeople. He’s just another guy with issues, race not being one of them, and is hotly pursued as a mate by father and brothers for their defiant Lizzie. The interaction between them, and the presence of a younger inter-racial couple in the ensemble knocks down the insurmountable even illegal barriers of times past to help us look past color and appreciate each other as unique and worthy.
It’s a terrific feeling that adds exuberance to the play’s already exhilarating messages. Also, the musicians under the direction of Jay Crowder do justice to the Jones/Schmidt score which may remind you of Aaron Copeland’s sweeping sounds and melodies. Exquisite voices, such as Stephawn Stephens’, tucked in the ensemble, add to the uplift.
Another point that makes it pertinent to today’s audiences: the musical reflects the social psychology of despair, reminding us that when people are desperate – here the townspeople desperately need rain – or in today’s case angry enough, mass hysteria can take hold. What could be more topical than seeing how populations can be worked into a frenzy by leaders who make impossible promises that they desperately want to hear?
So, yes, there’s a lot there—including a fascinating depiction of Starbuck. Burt Lancaster’s swashbuckling physique and dreamy eyes set the usual tone for future Starbucks, while director Marcia Milgrom Dodge has him more like a hippy looking Native shaman. Don’t get me wrong, what Ben Crawford can do with a scene has to be seen to be believed. He prances about like a hot stallion but also with effusive and effeminate mannerisms that would register on gay-dar. At one moment he’s a high-pitched flaming hottie, while the next he’s sultry with an Elvis swagger to the point that I couldn’t help but wonder what Dodge’s intention was in presenting this Starbuck as Lizzie’s love interest.
The only patch that shows its age is the histrionic treatment of Lizzie’s prospects of being an old maid. That label isn’t even used in kids’ card games anymore and Annie Lennox belted out the “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” anthem decades ago. Still, the designers stayed true to the script. Ensemble women circle Lizzie dream-style to depict her fractious internal longing, the hot sun lighting sinks to demonic red and Olivera’s strong delivery of the musical’s show stopper “Old Maid” pulls the song out of the wretched doldrums and the rest of the script keeps soaring.
110 in the Shade speaks across generations because of its timeless messages about being true to yourself and creating your own reality. The Ford’s Theatre production taps into the heart of the story reflecting how our shared cultural legacy makes us stronger as individuals and indivisible in our union.
110 in the Shade . Based on the play by N. Richard Nash . Lyrics by Tom Jones . Music by Harvey Schmidt . Directed and Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge . Cast: Tracy Lynn Olivera, Kevin McAllister, Ben Crawford, Christopher Bloch, Stephen Gregory Smith, Gregory Maheu, Chris Sizemore, Alex Alferov, Maria Egler, Jade Jones, Happy McPartin, Ines Nassara, Bridget Riley, Stephawn Stephens and Michael Yeshion .
Scenic Designer: Michael Schweikardt .Costume Design: Wade Laboissonniere . Sound Designer: David Budries . Lighting Designer: Matthew Richards . Hair and Make-Up Design: Anne Nesmith . Music Director Jay Crowder . Stage Manager: Craig A. Horness. Produced by Ford’s Theatre . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.