Theater review: 110 in the Shade

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Last week must have been the kick-off for a musical be-kind-to-plain-women celebration across Metrolina, for while Queen City Theatre Company was opening Passion at Spirit Square, Old Courthouse Theatre was cruising into the middle weekend of its three-week run of 110 in the Shade. The show hasn't played in Charlotte during the Loaf Era, and the stars didn't align properly for me to see the colorblind revival of the show on Broadway in 2007, featuring Audra McDonald as Lizzie Curry. So I wasn't going to let a few exits on I-85 prevent me from savoring the Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones musical for the first time.

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Lizzie, you may remember, is the prairie gal who's beginning to think, as her biological clock begins ticking more loudly, that you can't get a man with a brain — until the title character of The Rainmaker, the charismatic Bill Starbuck, rolls into the Curry homestead in his ramshackle star-wagon. Reshaping the N. Richard Nash drama into a musical, Schmidt and Jones teamed up with the playwright. Transporting much of the action to a holiday picnic, Nash's book is absolutely sure-footed in enlarging the action to Broadway ensemble proportions without sacrificing the best private and family moments of the original script. As the Curry's agonize over the prospects of Lizzie's spinsterhood — while the phony rainmaker Starbuck cultivates her womanhood — the poignancy and the comedy remain on a human scale.

Talk about sure-footed, Old Courthouse creative director Heather Wilson was the second-best Lizzie that I've ever seen — only the screen performance by Katharine Hepburn edges out Wilson's — when she starred in the Central Piedmont Community College's production of The Rainmaker in the summer of 2009. Directing 110, Wilson not only gets the essence of Lizzie's late blossoming, she gets community theater. Time after time, with sets by Trent Wilson and costumes by Carol Salloum, Wilson turns deficits in design polish and acting experience into positive assets.

Robert Nipper isn't as ideal as Bill Starbuck as he was in Man of La Mancha as Sancho Panza at Theatre Charlotte in 2009, a little short here on con-man charisma, but the full power of his voice definitely blasts through. While Elizabeth Thomas has her difficulties with the early wallflower Lizzie of Act 1, she certainly blooms nicely after intermission. Wilson may use too much of the stage's width in the denouement, but the intimate nocturnal scene with Nipper and Thomas is only slightly more affecting than the final showdown between Starbuck and Sheriff File — with Lizzie in the middle. I was in tears both times, but that could just be me, hearing echoes of Hepburn when Thomas spoke the same words.

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Adam Morse has starred in a CPCC Summer Theatre production or two, so he's a wonderful steadying force as File — and probably more of a sober counterbalance to Starbuck's flamboyance than we usually see. As Lizzie's dad, Roger Watson magnificently mixes gruff ignorance and instinctive tenderness. Chris Barcroft may make you scratch your head a couple times as Noah, the naysaying older brother, but he comes around nicely when it's time for family solidarity. Gyo Gamble and Erica Lemmon are noticeably green as Jimmy, the goofball younger brother, and his giggly girlfriend Snookie, but they didn't fail to remind me of the wanton second couples that lighten up Carousel and Guys and Dolls.

"Simple Little Things," Lizzie's anthem, and the ensemble's "Rain Song" come the closest to measuring up to the classic scores of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. But all of the Schmidt-Jones songs in 110 are listenable and serviceable, and the wee John Stafford-led orchestra handles them well. Better yet, Old Courthouse outdoes CPCC in delivering a truly wet ending.

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