It's the shimmering. It's the raw emotional shimmering in Audra McDonald's voice — part of the ferociously human Lizzie Curry she creates in Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of 110 in the Shade — that makes you engage. Forget tonight's stresses, yesterday's messes: One of the American musical theatre's most glorious voices is coming at you, and you're awed by its perfection.
In director Lonny Price's revival of the 1963 tuner, McDonald again proves a star without parallel; her singular ability to divine folds of character remains undimmed. Still, watching 110 in the Shade is an exercise in having patience. Based on N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker (with book by Nash, music by Harvey Schmidt, and lyrics by Tom Jones), the story is lighter than cotton floating across the Texas panhandle, where the tuner is set. The daughter of H.C. (John Cullum) and sister of Noah (Chris Butler) and Jim (Bobby Steggert), Lizzie loves File (Christopher Innvar), the sheriff, who's given up women since his wife deserted him. Even when the Curry men invite File to a family picnic, his "No" — emphasized by File giving dim Jim a shiner — only serves to echo Lizzie's belief that she's plain and without marital prospects. In one of 110's best scenes, Noah, gruff as a goat, says this directly to Lizzie, right before intermission.
The heat and drought, meantime, are worsening, and here comes huckster Starbuck (Steve Kazee) claiming that he can make rain. When Lizzie's father gives Starbuck $100, it's a hard moment to buy — the long-haired, dreamy-eyed Kazee fairly reeks of snake oil. Still, H.C. has reasons for coughing up the cash: He dearly wants Lizzie to love and be loved, even if only briefly by a con man. Amid a love scene, a confrontation scene, and a downpour, that's what she gets, and then some.
How regretful, though, that 110's action pivots on the perceived importance of a woman's physical beauty. Even the final message of the show — that beauty is more than skin deep — is buried by the romantic score, with songs like "The Rain Song" in Act 1 and the heavenly "Melisande" in Act 2. The song "Raunchy" is Lizzie's (and the authors') opportunity to castigate looks and nuptials as the endgame for a woman, and while it's superbly choreographed by Dan Knechtges, it's clear that Lizzie is a pre-feminist, not a protofeminist, creation.
Price artfully stages the tuner on Santo Loquasto's raked, revolving set, with its huge sun rising and falling and Loquasto's 1930s costumes adding a sense of social fabric. The director also elicits fine performances from the rest of his cast. Cullum may be slightly too old to play Lizzie's father, but he curbs H.C.'s tendency toward folksiness nicely, allowing his character's pure wisdom to poke through. Butler's Noah and Steggert's Jim may be bumpkins, but they're bumpkins with hard and kind hearts, respectively. Innvar seasons File's aloofness with tenderness. And Kazee's Starbuck is as expansively charismatic as one could hope. A no-good criminal bad guy, he gives the town rain, yes, but also gives back to Lizzie her self-possession and soul. And in McDonald's hands, nothing is more beautiful.
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company
at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., NYC.
May 9-July 29. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., and Sun., 2 p.m.
(212) 719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org.
Casting by Jim Carnahan.