Ah, those innocent days on the prairie, where men still swaggered and every young gal’s sole ambition was to catch a guy and raise a family. Signature Theater is reliving the era via “110 in the Shade,” the 1963 Broadway musical (330 perfs) based on N. Richard Nash’s play “The Rainmaker.” The original composers, Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, have even participated in the remake, which has high aspirations.
Certainly the score, while not particularly memorable, is pleasantly melodic. One could also argue that the book is as refreshingly homespun as warm apple pie. But “Shade” is so unabashedly hokey and relentlessly out of step with contemporary values, especially regarding women, that it is perhaps best described as a curiosity.
Eric Schaeffer, the Signature’s artistic director, believes the throwback is so perfect for these cynical times that he’s doggedly maintained the show’s integrity while dramatically reducing its size. He has pared down the show from its original 30-member cast to an economical 13. Schmidt and Jones (creators, of course, of “The Fantasticks” and “I Do! I Do!”) have made revisions to the late Nash’s script, written a new song and reinserted a number that was cut during tryouts. Jonathan Tunick has been retained to write all new orchestrations.
Schaeffer, who recently earned kudos as artistic honcho of the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration, also enticed Broadway veterans Matt Bogart and Jacquelyn Piro to join the cast. Piro plays the pitiable rancher’s daughter, Lizzie, who is headed for spinsterhood, while Bogart is the handsome interloper who drops by to swindle the desperately parched locals but ends up bolstering Lizzie’s confidence. James Moye is the plain-talking sheriff who ultimately gets the gal.
To be sure, all of this talent has not gone AWOL. Tunick’s lively orchestrations showcase the varied score nicely. The principals get to display their dynamic voices, Bogart in the tender “Evening Star” (the tune left out of the original) and Piro in the simple “Old Maid.” There are also several enjoyable duets, such as Piro’s and Moye’s “A Man and a Woman.” The company sounds impressively full for its size in the opener, “Another Hot Day.”
Some other key roles are also filled with distinction, including Harry Winter as Lizzie’s caring father and Thomas Adrian Simpson as the constantly chiding brother. Also, the Midwest’s searing landscape is effectively captured by set designer Eric Grims’ bare wood-planked stage, accented by a blazing sun, steamy smoke and the final rain storm.
But “Shade’s” shortcomings are equally glaring. Many of the actors, including Piro, are hopelessly overtaxed to present the schmaltzy and predictable story with real conviction. Earnestness and innocence are laid on with a heavy hand. Musically, the show could really use a standout number. The new “You Gotta Get a Man the Way a Man Gets Got” is not the one.