Seen on Broadway: The quavering Roundabout Theatre Company ended the 2006-2007 season on a joyous high note with its Tony-nominated revival of 110 in the Shade, unseen since the original production closed in 1964. By itself, this musicalization of The Rainmaker, from the author of that popular stage and screen romantic fable, N. Richard Nash, and the songwriting team behind The Fantasticks, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, would likely be perfectly pleasant. But with Audra McDonald cast as the lonely Lizzie, who at first reluctantly, then passionately, gives herself over to the blandishments of the bamboozling rainmaker Starbuck (Steve Kazee), this is absolutely unmissable musical theater. Seriously—anyone who loves the form cannot skip her radiant performance, a genuine happening over at Studio 54 to rival Halston’s entrances with Liza in the 1970s. This is McDonald’s first musical since 1999’s unworthy Marie Christine, and she has returned in top form. At her most heartbreaking in this show, which comes at the end of Act I, she summons memories of no less than Judy Garland. That is good.
In another stroke of good fortune, the role of Lizzie’s watchful father, who helps her negotiate not one but two possible romances in the dry-as-dust Texas panhandle of 1936 after a lifelong emotional drought, has been filled by John Cullum—a perfectly apt pairing, as McDonald is heir to the great musical theatre tradition Cullum represents (both are Tony nominees this year). Kazee is perhaps a little too earthbound and “modern” as Starbuck—no Burt Lancaster to McDonald’s Katharine Hepburn-worthy turn, if comparing this show to the 1956 film of the play—but fine, and Christopher Innvar is persuasive and moving as the town sheriff, who behind his love-bitten exterior nurses a growing fondness for Lizzie. (In an amazing feat given the starpower onstage, Bobby Steggert walked away with a few scenes as Lizzie’s rambunctious younger brother.) Sensibly and sensitively directed by Lonny Price, who has wisely underplayed the more dated aspects of the story while bringing out as much complexity from its characters as he can—a good book is hard to find, and this is as solid as they come—110 in the Shade has made a welcome return.
For set and costume designer Santo Loquasto, who had been having a mixed season, the show is a return to form. His turntable design, outfitted with spare but nicely detailed Depression-era settings, is complemented by a giant overhanging disc that rises and falls—in Act I, Christopher Akerlind lights it to a burnished orange glow to suggest the searing summer sun, then cools the palette down for the romantic moon. Loquasto’s costumes could probably use a little southwestern grit but this as much a fairy tale of sorts as it as a period piece, so the accent on bright, clean colors is forgivable. Dan Moses Schreier’s sound is as usual impeccable—of course it makes all the difference when there is something worth hearing, which was not the case with the venue’s last revival, The Apple Tree. (The scenery was constructed, painted, and automated by Hudson Scenic; the lights were provided by PRG, and the audio by Sound Associates.) The design is at its best when it all stands down, save for Akerlind’s Tony-nominated illumination, for McDonald’s Act I closer, “Old Maid”—the staging is giving her its full support, but given a beautiful song that she wrings every tear from, it is better felt than seen as her immaculate performance takes center stage.
With the Tony-nominated Radio Golf, playwright August Wilson has completed his life’s work, a 10-cycle series, one play for each decade in the 20th century, set in Pittsburgh’s African-American Hill District. I say “completed,” rather than “finished,” as Wilson vigorously rewrote his pieces, and I suspect he would have taken a sharper pen to Radio Golf had he not died in 2005. The show’s one female character, Mame (Tonya Pinkins), the ambitious wife of Harmond (Harry Lennix), a lawyer bent on redeveloping the district, is a cipher compared to the loquacious and multi-dimensional men, and the undercarriage of the plot is more visible than usual. On the other hand, it’s pacier than some of its companions, including its immediate predecessor, 2003’s Gem of the Ocean, which had more of the high-flown speechifying that sometimes distinguishes, and sometimes mars, Wilson’s plays.
Radio Golf is a direct sequel to the 1900s-set Gem—its house, an almost mythic center for the black community at the turn of the century, is in 1997 likely to be torn down for commercial development, which prompts vociferous support from the go-getting Roosevelt (James A. Williams), the host of the titular radio program, and a torrent of resistance from the more socially and spiritually attuned Sterling (John Earl Jelks) and Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm). As engrossing as the back-and-forth is, under Kenny Leon’s lively direction—Jelks and Chisholm are Tony nominees—I should point out that no one thinks to simply move the house, but I suppose for Wilson that would be cheating. Still, this is a worthy end to Wilson’s unprecedented achievement, with a stirringly defiant ending.
David Gallo, a Tony nominee for Gem, and a long-standing collaborator with Wilson, has again been nominated for Radio Golf. Much as characters recur from play to play, so, too, do their places and possessions, and Gallo’s nuanced work synthesizes all that has gone before. The unit set—the first I’d seen in weeks without a turntable—floods the stage with memories at the Cort Theatre. Its center is Harmond’s redevelopment office, a purposeful business, with a poster of the new face for American blacks, Tiger Woods. But its edges are badly frayed. To the sides are disused barber chairs and, tucked away in its eves, what looked to be discarded keepsakes. To my eyes it has the same basic architecture as the disputed house, which can only be intentional, reinforcing the notion of a living history that can neither be forgotten nor denied. Gallo’s set is a powerful metaphor, encapsulating the history of these plays, and in tandem with Susan Hilferty’s telling costumes (from business attire to more revolutionary flourishes) and the unfussy naturalism of Donald Holder’s lights and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design it communicates a story that parallels Wilson’s own. (The Seattle Repertory Theatre constructed the scenery and props, with PRG supplying the lights and audio.)
The lights go up at the Music Box theatre. Marian Seldes and Angela Lansbury—legends both, the former constantly treading the boards, the latter absent for a quarter-century—enter. The audience applauds. At this point, the show is pretty much over, and the two ladies may as well just plant themselves in the stadium seats onstage and answer questions for a while. But the overly prolific Terrence McNally has unfortunately written a play for them to perform, and so Deuce begins. Seldes, on a bad Paul Huntley hair day, is the prim Midge, and Lansbury the saltier Leona, who were, the play tells us insistently, tennis’ greatest women’s doubles players ever. Decades after their heyday the two are reunited for a championship match, during which they will be honored. Envy, and mild resentments, crop up, and for laughs both actresses get to use the “f” and “c” words, which they pronounce with impeccable diction. A character identified as “An Admirer,” played with ill-concealed embarrassment by Michael Mulheren, pops up to get their autograph and to remind us (again!) how fabulous they are, while two witless sportscasters, the embodiment of all that has gone wrong in the game, prattle on from their booth. Michael Blakemore directs; the Playbill reminds us that he has won two Tonys, but maybe there has been a mistake and this is a different Michael Blakemore, one who would more easily settle for serving up such sedate, serviceable fare. Proving that half of all achievement is simply showing up, Lansbury has received her fifth Tony nomination for Deuce, but outside of the stardust twinkling from the leads most of this show lands squarely in the net.
Still, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not tell you that Deuce has a quite interesting design. Ann Roth’s costumes do their best to work up some personality for the two actresses. They are seated at the baseline of the stadium, and set designer Peter J. Davison has positioned additional rows and the press box above them and on the sides. The set is bisected by a transparent scrim, and using Scharff Weisberg equipment, video and projection designer Sven Ortel has filled the seats with projected spectators; the images move in sync with the on-court action, which is masterfully suggested by sound designer Paul Charlier. Mark Henderson’s supple lighting adds to the courtside ambiance. (Hudson Scenic provided the set, GSD Production Services the lights, and Masque Sound the audio.) Game, set, and match for the design team, whose volleys are more fun than the playwright’s.—Robert Cashill