PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: 110 in the Shade — Viva Audra!

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: 110 in the Shade — Viva Audra! The Family of Theatre embraced Audra McDonald May 9 when she showed up at Studio 54 to honor a professional commitment by opening, on the very last day of the 2006-07 Broadway season, Roundabout’s revival of 110 in the Shade, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's tune-up, Texified reworking of N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker.
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And honor it, she did — with a splendid, spirited portrayal of Lizzie Curry, an unloved (but looking) spinster who is brought to full womanly bloom by an itinerant, water-witching conman in the parched Panhandle of 1936. It's a performance full of spunk, spine and unexpected high-humor — one that seriously rivals Christine Ebersole's magnificent performance(s) of the Beale belles of Grey Gardens. Some first-nighters, in fact, were saying McDonald had just snatched the Tony away from Ebersole right at the finish line.

Not only did the work on stage speak for itself, the tragic subtext off stage came over loud and clear as well. Eleven days earlier, she had lost her dad, Stanley McDonald Jr., in a plane crash north of Sacramento. She took Wednesday and Thursday of last week off for his Fresno funeral and was back in the show by Friday, willing her way through six more days of previews and critics' performances leading up to the end-of-season opening night.

Such is the stuff of the-show-must-go-on mythology, but stars are rarely called on it in such a public and personal manner, and McDonald performed the myth heroically.

Prolonged applause greeted her startling entrance, bursting through a rickety screen-door to surprise her stage father (John Cullum) and two bros (Chris Butler and Bobby Steggert). There was more applause, earned and enthusiastic — and the inevitable standing ovation — at the curtain call after the rains came and Lizzie could see clearly a likely spouse in her sudden field of suitors (scoundrel Steve Kazee or sheriff Christopher Innvar).

First-nighters were then bused across town to the elegantly cavernous Guastavino's on East (very) 59th for their final after-party this side of next season's Xanadu on June 26. McDonald arrived fashionably late, looking very much The Star in a lovely white gown, and gamely, graciously endured the glad-handing that was coming at her from all sides.

Lizzie was a role she had obviously enjoyed working on. "I had a blast," she found herself saying, without really connecting with the words. There was no joy in her voice. "But, you know, it's weird circumstances." She attempted a smile. "The show keeps me going."

(Incidentally or not so incidentally, the last sentence in her Playbill bio dedicates "this performance to the memory of Lovette George," the Musical of Musicals actress and a dear friend who had co-starred with McDonald in Carousel and Marie Christine and who designed the necklace she wore when she won her Tony — No. 4 — for A Raisin in the Sun.)

Lonny Price, who directed McDonald in some Sondheims at Ravinia (Passion and Anyone Can Whistle), professed no surprise at her flair for physical comedy — and took no credit for it, either. "Nobody knows she's a spectacular comedienne," he declared, not at all inaccurately. "She doesn't need a lot of help from me in that department. She's totally original. We investigated the role in a new way, and her Lizzie's unlike anybody else's."

Jones, the 110 lyricist who is playing an actor practically that old in his other show in town (The Fantasticks), greeted McDonald with warm words — "a memorable night."

To the press, he trumpeted with proper pride, "Isn't it a lovely production? I've seen a lot of productions of this show in the past few years, and this one is by far the best of them."

On a serious note, he said Schmidt, his composing partner who has retired to Texas, "had another operation yesterday, for an aneurysm. He's in stable condition but in intensive care in a Houston hospital. We'll know tomorrow more. I think he's going to be okay."

Orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, a busy man these days (LoveMusik last week, Stairway to Paradise for Encores! this week), somehow found the time for 110, too. "All the work I didn't get in the '90s, I got this year," he cracked. "I never saw the original show, but, when I was a summer-stock conductor in the '60s, I conducted 110 in the Shade in Charlotte, NC with Dorothy Collins as Lizzie and the young David Carradine as Starbuck. That's how I met Dorothy. We were already old friends when we did Follies."

McDonald's spellbinding Starbuck, Kazee, is a recent Spamalot escapee — hence, Mike Nichols at the opening but not the party (wife Diane Sawyer is reportedly an early riser).

"Starbuck is an interesting role because I think a lot of people have their own sort of feelings about how it should be played," Kazee contended. "I think that the choices we made were really far away from that, and I actually like that. I like pushing the boundary and going against the norm. He's groundsier — we try to bring that out as much as possible.

"This is an amazing group of actors to be up there with. When you're on the stage with Audra, John Cullum and Chris Innvar — I'm so proud of our company and our show."

Cullum is tilling some familiar character turf with the Panhandle patriarch he plays here. H.C. Curry is a country cousin to his Tony-winning Shenandoah dad with the Tevye travail of an unmarriable, youngish old maid. "Yeah, I feel very comfortable in this show," he admitted. "I love my role. It's like drawing on my own family — my uncles and my dad."

His favorite scenes, shades of Shenandoah, are his clashes with Butler, his headstrong first-born. "I like that development of my relationship between me and my older son because it has a lot of fire and starch to it. It looks as if we don't love each other, but we do. It's a tough-love kind of thing. And I love working with Audra and with Bobby Steggert, the young kid. He knows just what he's doing. He's got a career ahead of him."

Both offsprings — Butler and Steggert — are making their Broadway debuts with this show.

Butler has light musical duties and comes out forcefully in the dramatic scenes as the hard-nosed and critically crippling Noah Curry. "I usually find myself in straight plays," he confessed. "I came out from L.A. That's where I'm based. I've done a lot of West Coast theatre and most of the one-hour television dramas — 'Without a Trace' and such."

He explains his coast-switch as "a kind of kismet. I just happened to be in New York doing a reading of a new play — Dael Orlandersmith, who wrote Yellowman, asked me to come in for it — and, while I was here, Roundabout's casting guy, Jim Carnahan, brought me in for this part. I read for the part, and I got it. I was here for a total of two days."

Steggert, who plays young and dumb remarkably well, is neither. At 26, he's a fireball of energy on the Studio 54 stage, and he has already won a devoted following of at least one. A bouquet of yellow flowers is delivered to his dressing room every day. The actor doesn't know the name — or, for that matter, the gender — of his admirer. Stay tuned.

He also doesn't know — on purpose — who played Jimmy Curry in the 1956 film version of The Rainmaker (Earl Holliman) or who was first choice for the role but couldn't cut the comedy (Elvis Presley). "I didn't want to know how anybody else did the role," he explained. "I'm having too much fun finding the character myself. I love how physical Jimmy is. I love being able to dance and fight and run around the way I do. I love that he's a believer and an optimist. He's the one who believes in the possibility of rain and the possibility of change. I think the other characters could learn a thing or two from him.

"I love that 110 is really about the characters and that we all get an opportunity to really act. I think things aren't getting in the way of that. It's just about a family, their story."

Steggert-in-heat is a comic sight to behold in a showstopper called "Little Red Hat." That apparel is waved at him like a flag by a flagrant flirt named Snookie (played by the also-Broadway-bowing Carla Duren). "We did the workshop together and found we have instant chemistry, instant compatibility," she said. "With him, I think it's because we get along so well. We don't have to try to love each other. We do. We really do love being on stage together. I think we're fortunate that our energies just perfectly match."

Glittering up the opening were Barbara Cook, Jane Alexander, Kathleen Marshall, Jessica Hecht, Nellie McKay, Dana Ivey, Sheldon Harnick, Rob Ashford, Walter Bobbie, Michael Grief, Moises Kaufman, Julie White (who will — let me say it right now — win the Tony for Best Actress in a Play, the play being A Little Dog Laughed), Joe Masteroff, Lynn Nottage, Roger Rees with Rick Elice, Ted Sperling, Tony Walton, John Weidman, Keith David, Deidre Lovejoy of "The Wire," Andrea Martin and Mark Sendroff, Rosie O'Donnell and Kelli Carpenter, Susan Birkenhead, Santo Loquasto, Tony Roberts with Carolyn Kirsch (the original Lois of A Chorus Line), Simon Jones, Randall Wreghitt, Jeffrey Richards, Anne Kaufman Schneider, Daryl Roth, Caroline McCormick, Phylicia Rashad, Mark Brokaw, Charles Randolph-Wright and Lynn Nottage. Roundabout rounded up the main players for its next production — John Van Druten's underdone Old Acquaintance, reaching the American Airlines Theatre June 28: Margaret Colin, Harriet Harris (arriving with her boyfriend, Matt Bradford, from The Acting Company), Stephen Bogardus, Diane Davis, Corey Stoll and Cynthia Darlow.

The property is best remembered as a 1943 Bette Davis-Miriam Hopkins "chick flick," but the play is quite different from the film, cautioned Colin: "It's much more contained than the movie was. It happens in the course of one month and doesn't encompass World War II. It's a lot tighter and a lot funnier. We've got a nice, long rehearsal period to get it right. We're doing the whole '40s stuff and also trying to make it very contemporary."

Darlow played Jan in the original production of Grease, costumer designer Martin Pakledinaz pointed out. "I was Broadway's oldest living teenager," she guilty admitted.

Pakledinaz is putting in a lot of research on Grease since he's outfitting the new one — at exactly the same time he's stitching the clothes for the Encores! edition of Gypsy which has that unlikely Together Again team, Patti LuPone and director Arthur Laurents.

Hartford Stage's artistic director, Michael Wilson, said when he finishes directing Old Acquaintance here, he will start preparing Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate for September at Primary Stages. The piece will star the author’s daughter, Hallie Foote.

Lily Rabe, who lost out on Old Acquaintance because her movie with Robert DeNiro ("What Just Happened?") went extra filming innings, was at 110 with her lovely mom, Jill Clayburgh, who is spending her time wisely waiting to see if her pilot ("Dirty Sexy Money") would be picked up. She just returned from South Coast Rep in California where she did a 10:30 AM reading of a "great" new Richard Greenberg play, My Brief Affair. Greenberg brought Clayburgh back to Broadway after 20 years in A Naked Girl on the Appian Way.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who arrived with Based on a Totally True Story at Manhattan Theatre Club, has his summer plans set: "I’m going down to Arena Stage to do a workshop of a new play called King of Shadows in a week," he announced. "And later this summer I'm going to the O'Neill with my play, Good Boys and True, which MTC did a reading of last spring. That's the show that's going to Steppenwolf in the fall."

Greg Kotis of Pig Farm dubiousness said that he and his Urinetown co-author, Mark Hollmann, are about to launch the new, long-promised musical, Yeast Nation — in Alaska.

Their Urinetown director, John Rando, is going through a change of mediums: He expects to begin a movie version of "Jewtopia" in Los Angeles at the end of July. "The guys who wrote the play [Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson] rewrote it for the screen and will star in it. It's very funny. It's called 'McConnell and Lipschitz Lose Their Religion.'"

Producer Roy Gabay said he's doing a workshop of Rejoice! May 17 at the New 42nd Street Studios, starring Leslie Uggams and directed by Radio Golf's Kenny Leon. Jar the Floor's Cheryl West did the book, and Thomas Dorcy did the score (an amalgam of hiphop, country, gospel and R&B).

Kelli O'Hara, a recent textbook-perfect Eliza Doolittle to Kelsey Grammer's Henry Higgins at The Met, is changing her tune from Lerner & Loewe to Rodgers & Hammerstein to do Laurey to Will Chase's Curly in Oklahoma City next month, celebrating the 100th anniversary of her home stage. People are already saying she's in love. She will up and marry Greg Naughton (that's right: son of James) on July 28.

A face missing from the opening-night scene all season showed up for 110Brent Barrett. He said his face is only half visible these days: "I'm in Vegas doing Phantom of the Opera out there. I've been there for a year. Wednesday is our day off so I came out because I had a couple of appointments here today, and it just coincided with the opening. David Zippel asked me if I wanted to come to the opening, and I said, 'I'm there.'"

Favorite vignette of the evening: Harvey Evans rushed up to director Price all agush with glad tidings and compliments. "It was so good I wanted to go back into show business," he said. Price responded in mock shock. "Oh, no!" he exclaimed, "don't do that!"

The company of <i>110 in the Shade</i> takes its opening night bows.
The company of 110 in the Shade takes its opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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