Rain Man

A traveling con artist conjures hope in 110 in the Shade.

110 in the Shade Kalliope Stage, 2134 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights Through May 21, 216-321-0870
Joan Ellison and Allan Snyder steam up the Kalliope stage.
Joan Ellison and Allan Snyder steam up the Kalliope stage.
The trouble with con artists is that they invariably want to bleed us, their dupes, for as much as possible. But if you remove their greed from the equation, those smooth talkers could provide a valuable service, providing hope by bolstering our "confidence" that things will turn out well. Heck, if we could each have a personal, not-for-profit con man always at our side -- to convincingly promise an unending stream of health, wealth, and enhanced performance -- we'd have no need for guardian angels or Deepak Chopra.

Musical theater has always had an affinity for con games, not to mention the naive innocence of the American West. These two elements collide, like a head-on between The Music Man and Oklahoma!, in 110 in the Shade, now on the boards at Kalliope Stage. Based on the play The Rainmaker, by N. Richard Nash, this melodic excursion through a drought-stricken little farm community in the 1930s benefits from intelligent direction by Paul F. Gurgol and crackling sexual tension between the two leads.

Taking place during one day and night, the show's first act is drenched in oppressive sunlight, illuminating all the problems of Lizzie Curry, whose prospects for male companionship are as arid as the parched landscape. A self-confessed plain Jane, who prefers to speak to the opposite sex "man-to-man," Lizzie is an ongoing matchmaking project for her brothers Jimmy and Noah, along with her father, H.C. They have plans to hook her up with the local sheriff, File, a stoic and raspy chap, who claims to be a widower, but is actually recently divorced and romantically gun-shy.

After an appropriate period of sweltering in the summer sun, a stranger named Starbuck appears like a freshening breeze, promising to bring rain within 24 hours for 100 clams up front. Lizzie and elder bro Noah are skeptical, but their dad and impulsive young Jimmy are entranced by the newcomer's hypnotic spiel, presented with galvanizing verve in "The Rain Song."

Once his pocket is stuffed with greenbacks, Starbuck sends the yokels off to bang drums in the field while he focuses his considerable charm on vulnerable Lizzie, who bristles with defense mechanisms. But in this case, Starbuck isn't selling a bill of goods; he's actually trying to sell Lizzie on her own beauty and femininity. Their initial confrontation, in "You're Not Foolin' Me," ends in a draw. But being a consummate salesman, Starbuck simply sees her professed lack of interest as a minor obstacle to closing the deal.

The pleasing musical numbers written by Harvey Schmidt (music) and Tom Jones (lyrics) propel the story forward with style and the occasional PC wince, as when the womenfolk croon lovingly about feeding their hungry men and then doing the dishes so they can start all over again. And while none of the tunes is as indelible as "Soon It's Gonna Rain" or "Try to Remember" from Schmidt & Jones' enormously popular The Fantasticks, the score is quite serviceable, with lyrics that frequently capture the moment. This is especially true at the start of act two, when the evocative "Everything Beautiful Happens at Night" sets up the nocturnal events that will tie together all the loose ends, meteorological and romantic.

Allan Snyder is every inch a convincing Starbuck, roaring with boundless joy as he tries to coax moisture out of the dry blue air and money out of gullible believers. But he's just as captivating in the quiet moments as he is when he's calling forth the gods of Doppler radar. As Lizzie, Joan Ellison firmly establishes her no-nonsense character and uses her polished voice to coax beauty out of tender songs. (She is less successful when called upon to deliver a comical ditty, such as her tongue-in-cheek "Raunchy," in which she imagines herself to be a bodacious flirt.)

The Curry family is led by Leslie Feagan as H.C., who makes the old man a soft touch without being softheaded. Elder son Noah is played by Justin Tatum with believable disgust at Starbuck's scams, while Daniel E. Henning portrays his younger brother, Jimmy, with a grinning effusiveness that swerves perilously close to parody. Tall and ramrod-stiff, Don Circle Jr. is perfect physically for the taciturn File, but he doesn't have the depth or wit that would attract a smart woman like Lizzie.

Although the early numbers are a bit ungainly, with the blocking and choreography appearing forced, the performers gain momentum and finish well. This is particularly true when Lizzie and Starbuck create a little high-pressure front of their own under the stars. And though Lizzie's final decision may be less romantic than some might wish, there's a prairieful of passion along the way.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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