OREM — When it was first announced that Will Swenson would bring Audra McDonald to the Hale Center Theater Orem, we knew that Will’s brother, HCTO Managing Director Cody Swenson, would pull out all the stops to make the benefit production of 110 in the Shade sizzle. But we were still caught off-guard by the production’s strengths. And we were reminded we why we first fell in love with live theater. 110 is an enchanting delight.
The source material for 110 is N. Richard Nash’s play The Rainmaker, and the musical’s lyrics are by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt. 110 followed Jones and Schmidt’s The Fantasticks, already into the thirteenth year of its historic 42-year off-Broadway run, and they would go on to write I Do, I Do! for Mary Martin and Robert Preston. Nash adapted the book himself, which is a bit of a shame. He clung to far too many of his original lines, making the musical a bit talky. But the lush, Western-flavored melodic score has been called vintage Aaron Copland meets Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The original 1963 production of 110 ran less than a year, being overshadowed by two star-vehicle shows the same season: Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl. The opening cast included Stephen Douglass (fresh from his success in Damn Yankees), Inga Swenson (who older readers may remember from TV’s Benson), and Lesley Anne Warren in her Broadway debut.
The Roundabout Theater Company mounted a warmly embraced 110 revival in 2007, and the luminous McDonald reprises her Tony-nominated role of Lizzie Curry in the Hale production. McDonald is a four-time Tony winner, a remarkable accomplishment made even more astonishing when the categories for these honors are revealed. She earned two Tonys in each of the musical and dramatic categories. (Only two actresses have five Tony awards: Julie Harris, all for straight plays; and Angela Lansbury who has won four Tonys in musical productions and one in a play.) And oh yes, McDonald received three Tonys before turning 30.
McDonald is playfully flirtatious in her comic solo “Raunchy,” effortlessly breaks hearts with her tender plea in “Love, Don’t Turn Away,” and is terrorized in her angry anthem “Old Maid.” But she then infuses complete satisfaction into “Simple Little Things.” In the intimate setting of this 300-seat theater, her full-throttle, yet still lyrical, soprano and impeccable acting skills are amply displayed, and the effervescent actress holds nothing back to deliver a first-class star performance. If the HCTO ceiling weren’t so completely weighed down with lights and other equipment, she could have easily blown off the theater’s roof.
In 110 McDonald’s character must choose between two kinds of “Wonderful Music” — traveling music with the dreamer and swindler named Starbuck: “Sleepin’ together out under the sky!”; or family music with the town’s shy but stable Sherriff File, who sings: “Sittin’ together is music! And watchin’ the children come runnin’ inside, Runnin’ with arms open wide.” But by then Lizzie has learned about “Everything Beautiful” in the musical’s charming choral piece.
Though Swenson appeared on Broadway with McDonald in 110, where the couple first met, it was as the understudy for Starbuck and in the chorus role of Cody Bridger. (It appears that Swenson may have named his own character, combining his brother’s name with the name of his oldest son.) The Utah native has since earned a Tony nomination for his lead role in last year’s revival of Hair, which he reprised in London. And he’s on the short list for a second Tony nomination when he opens Priscilla: Queen of the Desert on Broadway in the spring.
Swenson is a musical character actor with few equals. While Starbuck doesn’t make his entrance until near the end of the first act, from that point forward Swenson is a riveting presence. Starbuck is able to transform the plain spinster so completely that Lizzie can proclaim with unabashed zeal that “suddenly, I’m beautiful,” and “Is It Really Me?” becomes the play’s pivotal heartfelt moment. Swenson milks each laugh out of the comical “Melisande” but vocally he’s not able to make “Evenin’ Star” a soaring ballad, instead focusing on the tender sentiment the song evokes. And though the hair flipping might be a holdover from his Berger role, it’s distracting in this rural, Depression-era setting. But Swenson’s characterization is wonderfully charismatic and sensual.
To say that the other actors hold their own in this production is to understate their abilities. With the multi-talented Dave Tinney firmly at the helm as director and choreographer, 110 becomes as much an ensemble piece as a showcase for its two leads. Performances from the other 16 cast members are solid and keep the action fluid, an amazing feat on HCTO’s circular 320-square-foot stage.
The veteran actor Marvin Payne is a laid-back H.C., the family patriarch, and his harmonica playing is a welcome treat. Jared Young is a standout as Lizzie’s irrepressible kid brother Jimmy. His “Little Red Hat” duet with Snookie (not to be confused with Snooki, the Jersey Shore Guidette), portrayed by an eager Rachel Lynn Woodward, is a frisky departure to play’s central romantic triangle that seems to form within only minutes before its resolution. Tim Threlfall, the chair of BYU’s music dance theater program, brings great warmth to the role of Noah, Lizzie’s practical brother not above hurting those he loves to get a point across.
In his role as the repressed File, Kevin Goertzen must charm Lizzie away from the flamboyant Starbuck, and he gives an appealing performance. His superb acting skills are evenly matched to his moments vocally. Goertzen is especially revealing in “A Man and a Woman.”
While much has been made of the sound system developed for this benefit at McDonald’s request, its purpose is to control the tempo of the recorded track, to match the on-stage actors’ vocal-pacing decisions. It appears that the system is working quite well, but the quality of the theater’s audio was unaffected by the system, and at times the accompaniment becomes tinny, reminding us that this is a semi-professional production. And while acknowledging that funds are limited, the addition of a few brass instruments would be welcomed and make the accompaniment more in step with contemporary theater pit orchestras. Here’s hoping some of the fund’s raised by these benefits might augment HCTO’s sound.
But surely additional funds will be needed for this family-run, non-profit theater. So can wistful dreamers look forward to the McDonald/Swenson benefits becoming an annual HCTO event? Wonderful music indeed.