Jun 28, 2004

Sunny, chance of rain

Director David Lee gets Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' openhearted 1963 musical version of 'The Rainmaker' just right at the Pasadena Playhouse.
By Rob Kendt
Special to The Times
The tale is all in the telling with "110 Degrees in the Shade," Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' unabashedly big-hearted and soft-headed 1963 musicalization of N. Richard Nash's play "The Rainmaker," now in a roof-raising revival at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Nash's original 1954 play was quaint even in its day—a dime-store pastiche of William Inge and Edna Ferber. Musicalizing it with their trademark mix of guileless tenderness and seamless theatrical craft, Schmidt and Jones—best known for "The Fantasticks"—give the material a bounce and a kick, even in its soggier passages.
With a show whose central theme is the power of imagination to either spur us on or doom us to frustration, the sweeping storytelling virtuosity of director David Lee is a beautiful fit. From the starkly gorgeous sunrise tableau that opens the show to its final joyous downpour, this is musical theatre gold spun from hardy, all-American straw.
When good-natured sheriff File (Ben Davis) steps out from a crowd of townsfolk as they resignedly watch another blistering day begin and sings, in a sonorous bass over plaintive, Copland-esque chord clusters, "The sun is razzin'," we're firmly planted in that realm of folksy Americana that seems to be the exclusive property of certain Broadway musicals, from "Oklahoma" to "Shenandoah," "The Music Man" to "Big River."
It takes a certain kind of unembarrassed conviction to pull that off, and Lee's cast has it in spades.
The comically super-sized Lyle Kanouse plays a kindly patriarch with lip-smacking relish, and as his sons, rock-solid Tom Wilson and dashingly dopey Adam Wylie hit the right notes of slow-burning scorn and blissful innocence, respectively.
With the arrival of their sister Lizzie (Marin Mazzie), the show acquires some finer emotional shadings without losing its endearing obviousness. After all, Lizzie's dilemma couldn't be writ larger: She's a homebody without a husband and she's not getting any younger. This reliable musical theatre type—the too-smart would-be spinster who will taste the fruits of love, and surely lose a few hairpins, by the final curtain—is given inviting contours by Mazzie's uniquely feminine gravity.
Lizzie is intrigued but not fooled by the strapping young con man Starbuck (Jason Danieley), who blows into town on a ratty pickup truck and immediately whips the townsfolk into an evangelical frenzy with the promise of rain. Casting a look at skeptical Lizzie, he says, shrewdly mixing a tease and a threat, "Where there's suspicion around, it's a dry season." Starbuck's real trade is in dreams and faith, not acts of God, but clear-eyed Lizzie doesn't admit this distinction. For her, miracles aren't worth much if you can't touch them, which may be why she's able to succumb to Starbuck's inevitable seduction with her eyes wide open. She welcomes his wooing but not his worldview.
Mazzie is among the musical theatre's great actor/singers—she can wring more out of a song's text and texture than would seem possible, particularly in her bitter "Old Maid" number, which she turns into a mad monologue worthy of "Rose's Turn." She and Kanouse also manage to make "Raunchy," Lizzie's mock-burlesque for her own father, into a loving rather than lusty character bit.
Both Danieley's big-talking dreamer and Davis' diffident sheriff boast a disarming mix of vocal virility and emotional vulnerability, in varying proportions. As a twittering town flirt, Alli Mauzey steals her scenes with coquettish aplomb, sparking irresistible puppy-dog yearning from Wylie's young swain.
Lee's knockout design team matches his expansive, elemental vision. Scenic designer Roy Christopher frames the stage with battered wood slats that look like cutaway pieces of barn or fences turned on their side; a rusty windmill looms ominously still at stageside.
Lighting designer Michael Gilliam paints a sky in shades of ochre and lavender so rich it looks edible. And Randy Gardell's unflashy, lived-in costumes strike a palette of dusty oranges and muted blues.
There's not much of Kay Cole's choreography, but what's there is just right. Steve Orich's music direction has as much momentum and flavor as the rest of the show's elements—which, naturally, include a triumphant torrent of H20. Singin' in the rain—what a wonderful feeling.
"110 Degrees in the Shade," the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Dr., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 5 p.m. & 9 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 25. $50 to $55. (626) 356-7529. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.