By Patrick O’Brien
It may seem strange for BoHo Theatre to mount 110 in the Shade — perhaps the most “summer musical” ever written — in the midst of fall, just as the weather in Chicago has taken a turn for the chillier.
Then again, the changing of nature has always been a central theme of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s oeuvre, a perfect mirror for their subjects’ inner growth. In their eternal Fantasticks, night turns into day as its naive young lovers become sadder but wiser. In their uncelebrated Celebration, youth and old age quarrel as the clock counts down on New Year’s Eve. And in 110, a perilous Texas drought gives way to pouring rain as the kind but insecure Lizzie Curry blossoms into her own with the aid of the flim-flam “rainmaker” Starbuck.
Also appropriately enough, the musical is a noted favorite of BoHo’s Artistic Director Peter Marston Sullivan, who will step down from the post after this season.
In any case, the days are getting shorter, we could all use some warming up, and BoHo and Marston have got the fire going with its central triangle of players.
Neala Barron is no stranger to incisive work, and her Lizzie further attests to her ability and willingness dig deep. She’s believably, painfully shy, and the more her well-meaning father and brothers (Peter Robel, Billy Dawson and Christopher Ratliff) try to play matchmaker, the more she retreats…until something turns within her in her closing act one solo, “Old Maid.” Here is where her gently passive fantasies of being paired off give way to the existential dread of living alone; so despite her earlier dismissals, her night with Starbuck out on the plains seems inevitable.
For his part, Tommy Thurston’s Starbuck is appropriately rugged and talks sweet magic even when off the clock, like his ridiculous yet beguiling ode to fantasy “Melisande.” And, in a study of opposites, whereas Barron’s Lizzie is terrified of being alone, Thurston recognizes that his transient way of life forbids anything deep, so his lot is a quiet yearning, as in “Evenin’ Star.” Those two songs, back to back, may just be the heart of the show, and the pair pull them off beautifully.
Point three is Denzel Tsopnang as Sheriff File, the other obstacle in Starbuck’s way to fleece the town and with a yen of his own for Lizzie. Not a born stoic, his poker face hides someone who, unlike Lizzie or Starbuck, has loved and lost. His wife “died” several years before…at least that’s how he tells it, how he’d like it to be.
File also gets the first few notes of the show to himself, and he’s all the proof anyone needs that 110 is musically solid. (Ellen K. Morris directs a sensitive three-piece ensemble.)
Great work, all around, really. (Robel’s solo guitar was especially lyrical.) If anything, this musical about the open plains needs that much more open plains. Two-thirds of the stage are devoted to the Curry house, and finely detailed as it is, a more Jones-and-Schmidt-like approach — a few tables and chairs — would’ve sufficed.
Small pickin’s, though. BoHo’s 110 is a fitting note on which to end an evening, or a season. Things may start to get cold and dry, but they bring warm, life-giving rain in abundance.
BoHo theatre presents “110 in the Shade” through December 16 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave. More information and tickets are here.