There are moments in Mariemont Players’ 110 in the Shade when genuine theatrical impact shines through the difficulties of staging a Broadway musical of only iffy merit with a cast of 16. It’s presented on a set designed by Dennis Murphy that communicates the play's mood, as well as its time and place: a drought-scourged, worry-scurried prairie village in the 1930s. Farmers are giving up hope of a rain that will save their crops and cattle, just as thirtysomething Lizzie Curry (Laurie Brinkman) is close to giving up hope of ever finding a husband and having children.
Then, into this dry, dusty landscape rolls a drum-banging, sweet-talking, rain-making con artist named Bill Starbuck or maybe Tornado Johnson or a dozen other names (Wayne Wright). He promises (in exchange for a mere $100) to bring on a holy-hallelujah, kick-up-your-heels-and-write-it-in-the-Bible rainstorm. Just beat this drum, he says, and paint a whitewashed arrow on the ground to lead the lightning away from the farmhouse. He also exposes Lizzie to her true self, making her see the pretty truth inside the plain exterior. Soon enough thunder is rattling on the horizon, and Lizzie is confronted with not one but two proposals — the second and more realistic from File (Rick Kramer), the town's sheriff.
Neither The Rainmaker, the N. Richard Nash play on which the musical is based, nor the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical (book by Nash) enjoyed run-away success on Broadway. The play lasted for only 70-plus performances in the mid-1950s. A 1999 revival with Woody Harrelson as Starbuck survived for barely a month.
The original 1963 production of 110 in the Shade ran less than a year with Stephen Douglass (fresh from a personal success in Damn Yankees) as File, Inga Swenson as Lizzie and Broadway debuts by Robert Horton and Lesley Anne Warren, who would later win an Oscar for Victor Victoria. (By comparison, when 110 opened, Jones and Schmidt's astonishing Fantasticks was already into the 13th year of its of its historic 42-year off-Broadway run.)
Why the short runs? Easy. There's not much emotional depth or intellectual illumination to Nash's Rainmaker plot and characters. There’s even less in the musical’s telescoped libretto, in which characters are paper-thin and predictable plot twists seem arbitrary. Likewise, the Schmidt-Jones songs are more pleasant than powerful, more tinkling than tangible.
For Mariemont’s show, director Skip Fenker has set an even, understated pace with only the occasional outburst of passion. This works best when Lizzie and Starbuck get romantic and is least effective in scenes between File and members of Lizzie’s family when sly comedy should be happening and doesn’t much. Susan Jung's choreography barely qualifies as dance, but then the cast members don't appear to be dancers.
The show’s strongest moments are, no surprise, a couple of its musical numbers — particularly when Lizzie bemoans an old maid’s fate in the first act finale, when musical-savvy Mr. Wright takes charge of things singing his promise that “There's a big rain a-comin’ ” and when, at the plot's apex, Lizzie must choose between two kinds of “Wonderful Music.” Will it be “traveling music” with Starbuck: “Sleeping together out under the stars.” Or will it be “family music” with File: Sitting on the porch at sundown, watching their children at play.
Then there’s the rain. Yes, the rains come — real water from banks of perforated pipes in the ceiling. The show projects a genuine sense of jubilation when the shower kicks off the hoedown finale.
110 IN THE SHADE, presented by Mariemont Players, continues through Feb. 1. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.