- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 8, 2003

They say a woman in her 30s nowadays has a better chance of being struck by lightning than getting married. Lizzie Curry should have such luck: she lives in a prairie town plagued by a drought with no end in sight.
The plain, plainspoken Lizzie (Jacquelyn Piro) is the "old maid" heroine of "110 in the Shade," the musical version of N. Richard Nash's 1954 play "The Rainmaker" that is now being revived and revitalized by director Eric Schaeffer at Signature Theatre.
When it premiered in 1963, this musical was swamped by that year's competition which included "Hello, Dolly!" and "Funny Girl" and sunk by its own bloated production featuring a huge cast, numerous set changes and gaudy costumes.
Mr. Schaeffer, with composer Harvey Schmidt and lyricist Tom Jones, has put "110 in the Shade" on a diet. He slashed the cast to 13, simplified the orchestra and orchestrations with the help of Jonathan Tunick (of last summer's Sondheim Celebration) and reduced the scenery to a smattering of wooden trunks and boxes. Messrs. Schmidt and Jones have written a new song, "You Gotta Get a Man the Way a Man Gets Got" and restored the soaring, wishful "Evening Star," which was cut from the original Broadway production.
The result of all this whittling is a lean, melodic, emotionally charged paean to heartland America and small-town values that refuses to diminish its rural characters by sentimentalizing them. It is marred only by Karma Camp's schmaltzy, creaky choreography, which has people clomping around like refugees from "Hee Haw."
This rural community's dependence on the weather is conveyed through Eric Grims' stark set of heat-baked wooden planks, a squiggle of a hot orange sun and a hazy, dust colored light.
The townspeople need rain, but Lizzie needs more a husband. The sole female figure in a ranching family, Lizzie is expected to marry by her widowed father, H.C. (Harry Winter), and her brothers Noah (Thomas Adrian Simpson) and Jimmy (Stephen Gregory Smith). They unsentimentally grade her like she's a prize heifer, but the family loves her dearly, a love expressed in the dizzying excitement of the song "Lizzie's Comin' Home." But Lizzie is either scared of or scaring off the many men they push in her path, notably File (James Moye), an eligible sheriff who's a little gun-shy after a failed marriage.
What it takes to have Lizzie define herself and to have the town break out of its torpor is Starbuck (Matt Bogart), a charismatic stranger who claims that for $100 he can make it rain.
Starbuck, a strapping man with the build of a rodeo star, has a silky, insinuating voice and every word he speaks and every note he sings holds either a tease or a promise. After he sings "The Rain Song" with holy roller ferocity and seduction, practically everyone falls under his spell, doing crazy, superstitious things like beating tom-toms, rattling bells and painting white arrows on the ground anything to bring the rain.
Lizzie is wise to him from the start, but still she is drawn to his magic, his big, handsome head filled with dreams, his power of reinvention. In the course of one stifling night, Starbuck helps Lizzie see her reflection in love's eyes, instead of in the mirror's cold gaze.
And what a transformation it is. In today's sexually egalitarian world, it may be hard to swallow that being a spinster is a fate worse than death, but when Lizzie looks in Starbuck's eyes and believes she is beautiful, it is one of those enchanting moments worthy of the greatest fairy tales.
Lizzie, Starbuck and File are three odd soul mates when you think about it. Lizzie has let other people tell her who she is and therefore feels like an outcast; Starbuck lives in dreams and schemes because he doesn't like what he sees out in the world; and File is afraid to rejoin society and life after a failed marriage.
Lizzie brings about changes in all three characters, while remaining true to her modest expectations of life. As she sings in "Simple Things," she doesn't want the moon, just her idea of a sliver of heaven.
Miss Piro, a Broadway veteran, brings astonishing warmth and intelligence to the role of Lizzie, conveying a woman at odds with herself; rangy and sassy with her family and those she is comfortable with, pinched and shy with the outside world. Miss Piro sings with conversational ease, conveying both practicality and yearning in the numbers "Love Don't Turn Away" and "A Man and a Woman." Mr. Bogart is appropriately broad and bombastic as the larger-than-life Starbuck. As File, Mr. Moye is a restrained revelation as a cowboy busting to express himself without betraying the strong, silent facade he shows to the world.
You couldn't find a more compassionate, understanding father than Mr. Winter's H.C. Curry, and Mr. Smith brings much-needed comic relief as the goofball brother Jimmy a contrast to Mr. Simpson's brooding, hard-line brother Noah.
"110 in the Shade" boils down to a story about love, both familial and romantic. In either case, it counsels, it's wisest to be seen and loved for who you truly are, warts and all.
It's either that or wait for lightning to strike.

***1/2
WHAT: "110 in the Shade" by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones; book by N. Richard Nash
WHERE:
Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run, Arlington.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, Through March 2.
TICKETS:
$20 to $38
PHONE:
703/218-6500
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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