Apple Tree Theatre Company

When 110 in the Shade made its Broadway debut early in the 1963-64 season, observers watched it closely to see whether its creators, the songwriting team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, could work as effectively in the large style of Broadway musicals as they had in the intimate scale of their earlier off-Broadway hit, The Fantasticks. The results were mixed: with a marvelous cast (Inga Swenson, Robert Horton, Stephen Douglass, Will Geer, and a very young Lesley Ann Warren), gorgeous choral arrangements by Robert de Cormier, and choreography by the great Agnes de Mille, 110 ran a modestly successful 250 performances–not bad, but small potatoes compared to Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl, which opened that same season. After its initial run, 110 never had a national tour, and over the years it has popped up pretty infrequently in stock, community, and school productions.

This is a real shame, because this musical adaptation of N. Richard Nash’s hit comedy The Rainmaker has a great deal to recommend it. The two lead roles–Lizzie Curry, the bright and spirited but love-starved heroine, and Bill Starbuck, the showy charlatan who brings rain to Lizzie’s drought-ridden ranch and love to her dried-up life–are glorious opportunities for singing actors. Lizzie especially is a virtuoso role, ranging from gentle romantic yearning to fiery anger to desperation to broad sweeps of low comedy; and Starbuck is one of the few male roles in the musical-theater repertory that allows an actor to be both heroic and vulnerable, masterful and foolish.

And to complement N. Richard Nash’s already richly evocative dialogue–plainspoken and real, like the characters in this western comedy, yet dense in metaphors linking drought and sexual longing–Jones and Schmidt produced a score packed with beautiful, memorable, singable songs. From the Copland-esque “Rain Song” theme that opens the show and recurs throughout to Starbuck’s grandiloquent solo “Melisande” (in which he hilariously links every myth and fairy tale he’s ever heard together in one bizarre legend to entice Lizzie), and especially in the splendid songs designed for Lizzie, lyricist Jones and composer Schmidt created a score that, in the finest musical-theater tradition, enriches our understanding of the characters while standing on its own for sheer listening pleasure.

Is there life after Broadway? Jones, Schmidt, and Nash hoped so; after years of watching 110 lie neglected, they decided to rework it into a chamber musical. They were never happy with the big choral numbers and dance sequences they had fashioned to make the show fit into the Broadway standards of the day, so they cut the chorus, added a solo or two, and brought the piece back down to the scale of the fabled Fantasticks. The new version, they feel, is truer to their real intentions; it’s also, not at all coincidentally, cheaper to produce and so more likely to get produced.

By dumping the chorus numbers and focusing more intensely on the lead roles, and by making the work more accessible to small theater companies, the authors have also put more responsibility on the director, designers, and actors to create a performance that captures 110’s shimmering blend of naturalism and stylization. In a show that is all about the power of dreams–Lizzie’s dreams of love, Starbuck’s dreams of power–to change reality, the performers must dazzle the audience through the force of their characterizations. Therein lie the great strength and the great weakness of the Apple Tree Theatre Company’s current staging of 110. In Mary Ernster, Apple Tree has a magnificent Lizzie: she radiates intelligence, warmth, but also uncertainty and insecurity; she responds with unfettered but never excessive emotion to every moment she has with the other actors; and she wraps her soprano gloriously around Lizzie’s tunes–the buoyantly hopeful “Love Don’t Turn Away,” the delicate “Simple Little Things,” the rapturous love ballad “Is It Really Me?” and the all-stops-out “Old Maid,” Lizzie’s operatic soliloquy of loneliness and terror at facing life alone.

But Ray Frewen, Ernster’s Starbuck, is simply a washout. It’s not just that he’s physically miscast–an average sort of guy instead of the bold and sexy dynamo the part requires; it’s that he ignores all the dreaming poetry of Starbuck’s dialogue, rushing through rather than lingering on the lines. He overplays Starbuck’s underlying bitterness and security, and comes off like Joe Mantegna playing a used car salesman.

Frewen might have done all right as Sheriff File, the taciturn divorced man who loves Lizzie but is afraid to open up to her; surely he couldn’t have been worse for the part than Francis X. McGee, who utterly lacks the strong-and-silent presence required of the part (this guy wouldn’t make a good license clerk, much less a sheriff). Both Frewen and McGee have good voices, but they fail almost totally to connect with the music Jones and Schmidt have given them–a failure made all the more apparent by Ernster’s superb dramatic connection with her songs.

Luckily, the supporting roles are all well played. 110 is very much a show about the need for family, and Lizzie’s interplay with her two brothers–the cynical Noah (Troy Mays) and the giddy young Jimmy (a thoroughly likable Ted Koch)–and her jolly father H.C. (played by Ed Meese look-alike Gene Janson) is believable and warm. In the near-cameo role of Snookie, Jimmy’s sexy girlfriend, the excellent Stephanie Galfano seems miscast–she’s got a dark and dramatic quality, while the role is light and fluffy–but she overcomes that with an imaginative and physically energized performance.

Nancy Macomber’s musical direction brings out the lovely inner parts in Schmidt’s score, but the tempos were too fast, at least on opening night, to let the emotional resonances of the song reverberate. Ernest Zulia’s staging is simply bland; granted, the Apple Tree stage is small, but that’s only reason to be more creative and expressive, not less.