ON THE RECORD: Audra McDonald's 110 in the Shade and Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall (Again)

News   ON THE RECORD: Audra McDonald's 110 in the Shade and Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall (Again) This week's column discusses the original cast recording of Roundabout's 110 in the Shade, starring Audra McDonald, and Barbara Cook's "No One Is Alone" disc.

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110 in the Shade [PS Classics PS-754]
The scrapbook of Broadway hits past includes classics, blockbusters, and musicals that return to the stage regularly. And then there are other titles; shows that were moderately successful — both artistically and financially — but remain on the miscellaneous pages in the back of said scrapbook. Among this group are a handful of forgotten gems. Roundabout has seen fit to rescue one of them, the Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones-N. Richard Nash 110 in the Shade, which opened in May at Studio 54. The results are perfectly lovely, bringing unsuspecting audiences a grandly exhilarating evening of literate musical theatre.

110 in the Shade is based on Mr. Nash's 1954 play The Rainmaker, which told of one Lizzie Curry. A dust bowl-country spinster, she faces the prospect of a dry and loveless life, while the entire community suffers from the more severe perils of a crop-and-livestock ravaging drought. Just as Lizzie finally accepts the reality of her position, a brash con-man of a rainmaker — a veritable buck, in the livestock sense, named Starbuck — comes to town to take the money of the rubes. And, as things proceed, take Lizzie as well.

Part of the magic of Nash's play comes from the compressed action; everything that occurs — the realization of Lizzie's despair, the timely appearance of two unexpected lifelines while everybody prays for rain — occurs within little more than 24 hours. The audience instantly embraces Lizzie as the underdog, determined to see her recognized and rescued. Gerry Page became an overnight star in the role, giving what was by all reports a breathtaking performance. The audience at large is more familiar with Katharine Hepburn's screen portrayal; in either case, it is an ugly duckling story that has the audience eagerly rooting for the emergence of the swan.

Nash managed to preserve the unrelenting tensions of The Rainmaker in his libretto; that 24-hour timeclock gives 110 in the Shade a dramatic thrust that is relatively uncommon on the musical stage. He was met more than halfway by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, who provided an unconventional but powerful score. Schmidt and Jones were an intriguing choice, coming from Off-Broadway's The Fantasticks. Producer David Merrick, noting that show's success (and the power of the songhit, "Try to Remember"), hired them for their big Broadway break. And proceeded to hinder them at every turn. Nash brought along director Joe Anthony from The Rainmaker; he had since earned his musical spurs with The Most Happy Fella. At a time when sensitive and moody musicals were not the fashion — that's 1963 I'm talking about, not today! — 110 in the Shade did well enough; while not a blockbuster, it received a respectful reception and enjoyed a respectable 330-performance run (with a decent-sized profit for the investors). It was not helped, however, by the competition; ten weeks after the opening came Carol Channing in Merrick's Hello, Dolly! the first of a handful of big, Broadway, SRO musicals that had audiences fighting for tickets. Two months later Carol was joined by Barbra (in Funny Girl), and not long thereafter you had musical comedies starring Steve Lawrence, Bert Lahr, Bea Lillie and Carol Burnett on the boards as well. The latter vehicles proved unprofitable, but the high octane star power pushed 110 in the Shade lower and lower on the must-see list. Nor was it helped by the tempo of the times; the country was thrust into a somber mood a month after the opening of 110 in the Shade by the assassination of the president.

110 in the Shade has heretofore proven revival-resistant; a 1992 City Opera attempt, with Karen Ziemba and Ron Raines, was rather flat-footed (despite the presence of choreographer Susan Stroman) and did not win over many converts. Lizzie, certainly, is not a simple role to play nor to cast. More than a few eyebrows were raised with the announcement that Audra McDonald would be the spinsterish old maid. Ms. McDonald, they said, is not exactly the spinsterish old maid type. Those inclined to snipe needed only point to the show's artwork, showing their prospective spinster in a pose conducive to selling after-bath potions at Bloomingdale's. (Lizzie Curry, in the final scene of the musical, does get a bit wet; but she does it with a dress on.)

Enough of that. That there is currently no finer theatre singer than McDonald is without question, in my book at least; part of the magic of Audra is that she appears to be at home in every musical style anyone has thought to come up with. Jones and Schmidt give Lizzie seven major songs, including a few ballads, a couple duets, one comedic showstopper and a searing dramatic soliloquy. The latter is the major test for anyone attempting the role; "Old Maid," it's called, which brings down the curtain on the first act (and with it, any remaining illusions the heroine still harbors).

McDonald, needless to say, mops up the stage with this one, revealing the character lost, alone and naked (although not as naked as in the artwork). Audra's "Old Maid" is a stab in the heart, well worth the price of admission, as they say, and no surprise here. The surprise comes somewhat later, with "Simple Little Things."

This has always seemed an effective enough character-study. McDonald's rendition, though, is so genuine that it becomes the heart of her performance. Here are her wishes and dreams, direct and unadorned; Audra's Lizzie, despite her prospects — so painfully limned minutes earlier, in "Old Maid" — believes. Another scene down the line, she sings a song in which she says "suddenly I'm beautiful." The audience has already seen it, when Audra is singing "Simple Little Things."

Any questions of beauty — or rather, a believable lack of it — are beside the point. McDonald, when she is not barnstorming the country with her singing, is a fine dramatic actress. Two of her four Tony Awards, indeed, have come from non-musicals. If McDonald didn't sing, she'd probably be off somewhere doing Proof and Doubt in rep; or better still, with Cherry Jones doing The Three Sisters. (With Cherry and Audra, you don't need a third sister.)

McDonald is ably abetted by John Cullum as H.C., Lizzie's father. H.C. does more talking than singing; fortunately, the new CD from PS Classics gives us a fair swath of dialogue. The Tennessee-born Cullum is, naturally enough, as comfortable as an old shoe in 110 in the Shade. He is, perhaps, the best Starbuck who never played the role; he didn't get it in 1963, passed over for more seasoned performers, but I expect that he would have been marvelous as Starbuck (or File for that matter).

Watching McDonald and Cullum in their scenes together is watching musical theatre acting at its most enjoyable. Go over to Studio 54 and observe the "Raunchy" sequence, for example. Lizzie enjoys playing around at being raunchy, and H.C. enjoys the show she is putting on, and McDonald enjoys performing it and Cullum enjoys watching McDonald and Lizzie enjoying it; but all the while, we feel H.C.'s ache at watching the forced gaiety brought on by his daughter's desperation. If Audra is Cinderella — Mr. Jones has actually provided a brief interlude in which she sees herself, as a child, as Cinderella — then Cullum is the fellow with wand and mice who implements the transformation.

The Starbuck of the present occasion, Steve Kazee, is not perhaps a Starbuck for the ages. He seems to be a perfectly capable performer, but I don't suppose this is what the authors had in mind. (Although let it be said that Robert Horton, the TV gunslinger who originated the role, wasn't precisely well-suited either.) Christopher Innvar is considerably more accomplished as File, offering a strong voice and a winning performance as the plain-but-solid sheriff. Newcomer Bobby Steggert makes a splashy debut as younger brother Jimmy, although his impact is somewhat diminished by the playing of his dancing partner.

Jonathan Tunick has reorchestrated the score, rather than simply giving us a cut-down version of the original orchestrations. This works out extremely well, especially in the surround-sound confines of Studio 54, with Paul Gemignani and his musicians literally split between two band boxes. (The harp, sitting right out in the open, is especially helpful in weaving the overall aural spell.) Yes, the band is smaller than the original — but only slightly; we lose a couple of reeds and the two horns, but Tunick gives us violins (which were not used back in 1963). Gemignani and Tunick have made some alterations to the original tempos and arrangements in spots, but these work very well in context (with, perhaps, one exception).

Typical of the musical handling of the evening is the addition of "Evenin' Star," one of the very many songs that were cut from the original. Starbuck, in a lonely and introspective moment, opens the second act with the song (which is, in fact, a contemplative rendition of the song that opens the first act). "Evenin' Star" is evocative, Kazee's rendition is tender, the orchestration is stunning, and one sits there wondering how they ever could have cut the thing in the first place. Let it be said that there's another cut song that we wish we could have heard Audra sing, an opening song for Lizzie called "Sweet River." Which, admittedly, doesn't quite cover the ground that its replacement, "Love Don't Turn Away," does.

There has also been some griping about the diminished size of the cast in Lonny Price's production. Misguided griping, in my opinion. The 1963 production had an ensemble of 24, yes; but 14 of them were dancers. Much of choreographer Agnes de Mille's work was cut before Broadway, leaving her corps underutilized and to some extent superfluous. Yes, they helped fill the stage for the opening, "The Rain Song" and "Hungry Men"; and they actually got to dance in the lyrical "Everything Beautiful Happens at Night." But I suppose 110 in the Shade was conceived with a full-sized ensemble because that's the way you did things in 1963. The authors didn't need those extra bodies then, and their show works perfectly well without 'em now.

Mr. Price has taken a musical that has been overlooked for the last 40 years and — by treating it respectfully (but not too respectfully) — given it new life. Or, with Ms. McDonald at the helm, perhaps more life than it had before. So by all means get a hold of, and enjoy, the new cast recording of 110 in the Shade. And if you're interested in an evening of well-made musical theatre, I'd recommend a trip to 54th Street.

Barbara Cook: No One Is Alone [DRG 91501]
Barbara Cook came back to Carnegie Hall last November with her sixth solo concert at that esteemed venue, singing a collection of songs by Sondheim and related songwriters (namely Hammerstein, Bernstein, Styne and Rodgers). DRG has now given us a disc of highlights of that concert, and what more is there to be said? Cook continues to sing as well as ever, and she continues to bring new levels of feeling to the songs. "No One Is Alone," as the collection is called, is just as good as the last Cook CD from DRG; better, actually, as the music department — under the direction of Eric Stern — is back up to the high standards formerly set by the late and lamented Wally Harper.

This is not a live recording, as Ms. Cook was recovering from an illness at the time of the concert. (This didn't in any way effect the impact of her performance, but it cut short on rehearsal time.) This turn of events turns out to be beneficial for her fans, though, as it forced Cook and her trio into the studio. Stern was joined by John Beal on bass and Jack Cavari on guitars, and they sure make — what's the phrase? — beautiful music together.

Highlights include — well, everything. "Never Never Land," "Nobody Else But Me," "Some Other Time" are all as you might expect; like, perfection. Sondheim highlights include two songs from Into the Woods, "No One Is Alone" and "No More" (the latter incorrectly labeled in the notes as being from The Frogs). There's an extra-jaunty take on Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Surrey with the Fringe on Top," placing it closer in style to Rodgers and Hart (whose "You're What I Need" is the only true obscurity in the collection).

The finale is "Make Our Garden Grow," on which Cook is joined (as she was in concert) by Kelli O'Hara, Sebastian Arcelus and a large chorus. My favorite listening — at the moment, that is — is the juxtaposition of "I Wish I Could Forget You," from Sondheim's Passion, with a truly swinging rendition of Hammerstein and Romberg's "Lover, Come Back to Me." Which, on reflection, serves as a perfect counterpoint to Fosca's song.

"No One Is Alone," another winning CD from Ms. Cook.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Find prior On the Record columns in Playbill.com's Features section. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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