For this month’s musical theatre focus, On That Note!, we caught up with Marcia Milgrom Dodge, director of 110 in the Shade  - at Ford’s Theatre  through May 14. Dodge garnered a Helen Hayes Award and a Tony Award nomination for the Kennedy Center production of Ragtime in 2009. In the ensemble of that show was Tracy Lynn Olivera, who now stars in the demanding role of Lizzie Curry, earning nightly standing ovations.
It’s not surprising that every question you ask director Marcia Milgrom Dodge about her current production of 110 in the Shade elicits an answer that references the show’s star, Tracy Lynn Olivera. The role of Lizzie Curry is one of the most demanding in the musical theatre, and Olivera nails it. “It really is up there with Mama Rose and Dolly Levi,” Dodge says, referencing the star turns at the center of Gypsy and Hello, Dolly! “Tracy’s off stage for the poker scene but the rest of the play is hers; she’s there the whole time. And she has to navigate vocally so many different colors and textures. It’s not one voice, it’s many voices. You have to be an awesome, technically brilliant singer.”
The actor’s skills proved an inspiration to a director who thrives on collaboration. At the first orchestra rehearsal, Olivera’s performance of “Raunchy” prompted a break-through moment. “Once I heard it with the orchestrations I said, ‘Patsy Cline that thing!’” Dodge remembers. “And she was really able to do it. She gave it this great country sound. Then the next song is ‘A Man and a Woman,’ and Tracy’s singing with Kevin McAllister, with his incredible buttery rich baritone, and she has to match that. She goes from Patsy Cline to a beautiful, legit soprano and you never have to worry about it.”
Dodge treasures the show’s score. “[Composer] Harvey Schmidt wrote in such an American vernacular,” she points out. “It’s Copland-esque. He captures the aridness of the land. You can feel the heat. Then with ‘Rain Song’ he captures Starbuck’s infectious and ebullient and contagious fire. There’s something in the music that is truly American. It’s a hopeful place.” And yet, Schmidt’s score also offers intricate layers, and challenges for its performers. “It’s a complicated score,” Dodge agrees. “There’s a yearning and a regret. ‘Old Maid’ is an absolute aria of fear and longing.”
Based on N. Richard Nash’s play and film The Rainmaker, the musical opened in 1963, marking the Broadway debut of the composing team behind The Fantasticks. Major revivals have featured Karen Ziemba and Audra McDonald in the role of Lizzie Curry. The show also proved a huge hit for Arlington’s Signature Theatre in 2003, with Jacquelyn Piro in the lead and a finale that featured an actual downpour in the company's intimate blackbox space.
For Dodge, it’s one of the stories that she knows will keep surfacing. “I didn’t approach the show as quaint or provincial,” she explains. “I approached it as ‘This is happening. These people have these problems. And these problems still occur.’ That’s the thing about stories. They show up in a cycle. They appear and they reappear. If you tell them honestly, there’s always a connection to what’s going on today.”
At the core of 110 in the Shade is the question of how people perceive each other, and how they perceive themselves. “The thing about Tracy and me is that we’re full sized women,” Dodge says. “We’re not a size two, and we’re not afraid to tell you that. There’s a perception that if you’re a little thicker you’re going to have a hard time getting romantic with someone.” Referencing the moment when Lizzie’s brother Noah insists that she be realistic about her prospects, Dodge explains, “Noah calls her plain but you could substitute plain with many other words. If you have anything that’s perceived as imperfect, you’ll be punished. We’re still living in the dark ages in so many ways.”
In the end, the experience of 110 in the Shade centers on relationships and on the grand messiness of the human experience. “This show is so big and so honest,” Dodge says. “I tell my cast, life is not neat. Let’s get messy. Let’s make a mess. Emotionally, let’s just make a mess. That’s what’s so much fun with this show. It’s building community. It’s getting involved with life.”