What more can be said about the glorious Audra McDonald that hasn't been said already? The woman is a gift; a bizarrely immense talent of truly legendary proportions. No one should be this good (or in an ideal world, everyone should be this good). And what she alone is able to bring to a production is more valuable than any other effort a production team can accomplish.
Even with a show like 110 in the Shade, an obscure piece last seen on Broadway in 1963, Audra McDonald is capable of mustering up a performance for the ages; and by doing so, elevates a seemingly lackluster show to a truly astonishing spectacle. This 2007 revival provides a star-vehicle turn for Ms. McDonald and she delivers with a portrayal that should have won her the 2007 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical (that eminent prize went to the great Christine Ebersole for Grey Gardens). Heck, it should have won her a religious following. She is that good.
Let me apologize now for all the hyperbolic statements before continuing - because while I will try my darndest to limit my excesses of praise, I know myself well enough to say that my efforts will be in vain.
110 follows the story of Lizzie Curry (McDonald), a homely woman who lives with her father, H.C. (John Collum) and her 2 brothers in a small Texas town in the 1930s. The town has fallen victim to a nasty drought and seems to be as dry as the tumbleweeds flying by. In comes Starbuck (Steve Kazee), a vibrant, charismatic vagabond who promises to bring rain. Lizzie has resisted all potential suitors, and H.C. jumps at the opportunity for Starbuck to sweep Lizzie off her feet. However, the local sheriff, File (Christopher Invar) may or may not have something to say about that.
The work is based off of N. Richard Nash's very own play The Rainmaker and is by the same team who created the long-running The Fantasticks. That show has its joys, but 110, with its simple story and unpretentious ambitions evokes more charm and wit (something that would not have been true were it not for this new production). The performances are uniformly superb. Christopher Invar smolders as File, portraying the stubbornness and vulnerability of someone who has been hurt and is reluctantly trying to move on. Steve Kazee received lukewarm reviews for his stage work as Starbuck (reportedly due to an underwhelming stage presence), but on disc sounds all the more abundant. Vocally, he achieves a cockiness and brightness that befits the show and really fills out his songs nicely; he is not the least bit lost in the ensemble as presented on this recording. The ever reliable John Collum has a fantastic rapport with Audra McDonald; and Bobby Steggert and Carla Duren are energized in supporting roles.
The score itself is filled with gorgeous ballads ("Simple Little Things"), lively group numbers ("The Rain Song"), and show stopping anthems ("Raunchy" and "Old Maid"). And while less memorable than Oklahoma!, 110 provides a beautifully melodic alternative to other rustic, inspired heavily-accented ranchers like Big River and the ubiquitous 7 Brides for 7 Brothers. Even with pared-down orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, the music seems sumptuous and ideal for a show ultimately about the simple life.
However, despite all efforts, 110 shines brightest when Audra McDonald takes the stage. When you listen to McDonald sing of "Simple Little Things," the sheer beauty of her rich and textured voice can bring you to tears. Her divine interpretation skills bring out previously unheard of complexities in such a simple song. Her Act I finale aria, "Old Maid," absolutely flies to the rafters and brings forth an emotional tidal wave not present in previous recordings. And, somewhat surprisingly to some, Ms. McDonald's best number "Raunchy," a send-up of a would-be torch song, radiates tremendous humor and pin-point comic timing. The 11 o'clock number provides her with a chance to bring down the house with applause and laughter (something Ms. McDonald rarely has been able to showcase in other roles). And yet, even with "Raunchy," you may still find yourself in tears - the performance is musical theatre heaven.
As a result of such a magnetic performance, the rest of the show seems a bit less exciting - and it is. The score, while great, isn't comparable to the best the musical theatre stage has to offer and needs a performer of Audra McDonald's considerable talent to bring out its best qualities. And quite frankly, the rest of the cast just doesn't have a shot at touching McDonald's greatness.
Still, despite its overall shortcomings, 110 in the Shade deserves a spot in the hearts of musical theatre fans. And this album deserves a spot in the collections of such. And why pass up a chance to hear Audra McDonald sing?
Actor and sometimes director/writer. This blog is dedicated solely to my thoughts on the wonderful world of live theater. If you wish to read my take on film, head to "And That's a Wrap," [http://j.mp/ThatsaWrap] syndicated at TheMoviePool.com [http://j.mp/TMPBlog].