Steve Kazee and Audra McDonaldin 110 in the Shade(© Joan Marcus)
Steve Kazee and Audra McDonald
in 110 in the Shade
(© Joan Marcus)
It takes strong-willed suspension of disbelief to accept Audra McDonald as plain Lizzie Curry in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of the 1963 musical 110 in the Shade, adapted by N. Richard Nash from his famed play The Rainmaker.

To get the desired effect, set and costume designer Santo Loquasto has to dress her in frumpy outfits with boxy shoulders and awkward hemlines, while Tom Watson has to clamp an unflattering wig on her that she only gets to let down late in the proceedings. If make-up designer Angelina Avallone has done anything at all, it's attempting to tone down McDonald's natural glow.

Yet the star's incandescence is still brighter than the huge disk of parching sun that hangs heavily over the stage as Loquasto's major set adornment (masterfully lit by Christopher Akerlind). Playing the fiercely independent, profoundly uncertain Lizzie, the quadruple Tony Award winner again lifts her stunning singing voice -- this time in a tuneful Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt score -- and delivers another totally convincing portrayal of someone clearly unlike herself.

A performer who can do no wrong because her instincts are so consistently and gloriously right, McDonald turns the handful of songs handed her into the deeply-felt outpourings of a woman who refuses to disguise her natural intelligence even though it intimidates all suitors coming near her. She speaks Nash's incipient-old-maid lines with the proper suspicion when a man arrives who sees through her defenses and relishes the inner beauty she radiates. Her own acceptance of that radiance -- which is Nash's major point about the character's needs -- is accomplished with such finesse that the standing ovation McDonald receives when she strides out for the curtain call is entirely understandable and thoroughly deserved.

Although director Lonny Price has allowed a thread of just-folks tweeness to coat the action, he's also enabled the human drama of 110 to breathe. The story unfolds on July 4, 1936 during an asphyxiating Texas panhandle drought. While Lizzie, just back from a disastrous visit to a nearby town, is desperately in need of love, the rest of her community is panting for life-giving rain. Zooming in from parts unknown to offer both in a two-for-one deal is Starbuck (Steve Kazee), who claims, among other things, to be a rainmaker.

Asking the then-substantial sum of $100 for his rainmaking services, Starbuck gets satisfaction from Lizzie's father, H.C. Curry (John McCullum). But Curry has an ulterior motive in paying the possible con man such an extravagant amount; he's looking to land a man for his daughter. Also circling around Lizzie, albeit warily, is File (Christopher Innvar), the town's once-divorced, twice-shy sheriff. Eventually, File recognizes the charismatic Starbuck as a wanted man on the run -- as well as rival for Lizzie's affections.

This song-and-dance-enhanced enterprise (the choreography is by Dan Knechtges) has its modest appeal as it heads for resolution of Lizzie's plight. Nash's intention is to present a fully-dimensional character study, and he succeeds in the endeavor. He also appears to be volunteering something about the right guy a gal should marry; the message here is that a girl should have her fling with Lothario but tie the knot with good ol' Lothar.

Is this wise advice? Maybe, maybe not. But 110 in the Shade has a sufficient number of blatantly Rodgers and Hammerstein-influenced songs to keep the audience diverted. Lizzie's breakout number "Raunchy," her breakdown number "Old Maid," and her breakthrough number "Is It Really Me?" all have their charms, particularly as McDonald caresses them. There's also the cute-as-a-button "Little Red Hat," which Lizzie's younger brother Jimmy (Bobby Steggert) sings with main squeeze Snookie (Carla Duren).

The exuberant McDonald receives more than adequate support from the men surrounding her, starting with fellow Tony winner Cullum, who has played enough plaid-shirted rural fathers to know how it's done. Kazee's Starbuck is the right kind of confident confidence man; Innvar's File registers high on the emotionally-injured meter; Steggert's Jimmy is properly perky, as is Duren's Snookie; and Chris Butler is fine as the no-frills Noah Curry. But no one shines as brightly as McDonald does in this Shade.