Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Liz Lauren.
110 in the Shade opens with a group of people singing a song called “Another Hot Day,” a complaint about the fact that it has not rained for ages and the temperatures are...well, you get the drift. It’s the 1930s in the Dust Bowl, so heat is almost a given. In Boho Theatre’s production of the musical, the number is staged very well: everyone is seated or standing there wilting and there is little to no movement. The heat is palpable and ubiquitous. It’s just too darn hot.
Well, I don’t know what has happened to them, but the extreme temperatures simply vanish. For the rest of the show, the company doesn’t seem to feel the heat at all, which is good for them, I guess, but not so hot (pardon the expression) for continuity. One assumes that it is still outrageously toasty, but that’s just due to the opening number, not to any actions that director Peter Marston Sullivan’s cast does. It isn’t as if they needed to walk around as if treading through oatmeal or anything, but maybe a guy taking a hat off could fan himself a bit?
This is an odd place to begin a review, I suppose, but my point is that Sullivan, an excellent director who has been nominated for Jeff Awards and who gets some marvelous performances here from his cast, seems to have dropped the ball a bit on some of the small stuff. Even scene transitions, which can be critical to a play’s movement, are halting and awkward, made through sudden blackouts that sometimes cut scenes off before the final beat is through. They detract from G. Max Maxin IV’s generally strong lighting design. (His final storm effects are superb.) And they also detract from what is actually a fairly strong show overall. How much will vary with the viewer, but I obviously was disturbed enough to prevent my full focus being where it really should have been: on the actors.
And they really are an outstanding ensemble. All of the leads are superb. Lizzie, the plain woman whose strength fuels her family but who feels a sense of loss in not ever finding love (this musical is not woke at all), is played by Neala Barron, whose powerful voice does justice to songs like “Raunchy” and “Simple Little Things.” Another amazing voice belongs to Denzel Tsopnang as the sheriff, File, a would-be love interest for Lizzie who is shut off from love himself after a failed marriage.
The key character of Starbuck, the con man who comes to town promising to bring rain but somehow helps Lizzie find her inner beauty, is played by the sinewy Tommy Thurston. Thurston, in a jacket by costume designer Theresa Ham that is its own work of art, embodies the role with all of the snake oil that such a man might possess. His “Rain Song” is an absolute highlight, and as his own heart melts from meeting Lizzie in the high-energy “Melisande,” we can see the real depth this dreamer has. Lizzie’s family consists of two brothers (Billy Dawson and the highly energetic Christopher Ratliff) and a father (Peter Robel), who need her to take care of them but want nothing more than to help her to find a suitable husband. It should be File, but if it is Starbuck, that’s OK too as long as he loves her. An early scene with the three of them descending upon File in his office to invite him for what transparently is a set-up is nicely handled, balancing the family’s love for Lizzie with File’s reluctant negative responses.
110 in the Shade is not the greatest musical in theatre history. Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’ songs are a bit hit or miss. The story, derived from book writer N. Richard Nash’s own The Rainmaker, is a bit too pat in many aspects. File’s character particularly gets short shrift, as does Dawson’s Noah; the both feel a bit one-dimensional at times. And the possible relationship between Lizzie and File is not developed enough for us to care that much. This is a case where an excellent cast working hard is limited by the play itself. If you come for the performances and just ignore the play’s shortcomings, you should have a good time.
110 in the Shade is a Boho Theatre production now playing at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago, through Dec 16. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.