NEW YORK - If it takes a four-time Tony winner to make sense of the sentimental musical

110 in the Shade

, then go after her for the leading role. That's what the Roundabout Theatre did, snaring the riveting Audra McDonald to play Lizzie in the revival that opened on Broadway last night.

McDonald, as a love-starved woman in 1930s Texas, brings a passion and nuance to the role that makes you shrug off the musical's soppy sensibility. She gives the work new heft, and new life - a revival in the real sense.

The 1963 show is the musical version of the 1954 play The Rainmaker, with a book by playwright N. Richard Nash, evocative music by Harvey Schmidt, and lyrics by Tom Jones. Schmidt and Jones wrote The Fantasticks, and this show has the same feel of innocence, until it turns preachy.

It tells the story of a town parched by a fierce drought. In comes a stranger named Starbuck (the forceful, big-voiced Steve Kazee), who says he can bring rain. Lizzie's dad (Broadway veteran John Cullum, who plays the role with genuine warmth) gives the con man $100 to cloud the skies.

The show is also about poor Lizzie's failure to rope a guy. Is she woman enough? Pretty enough? Is believing in your dreams the same as lying? Won't you be beautiful if you say you are? We spend a lot of time on ephemeral flotsam as Starbuck attempts to unleash Lizzie's inner beauty, and the musical becomes a rasping, old-time schoolmarm: Everyone seems to have a lesson to sing about or teach, and to defend as the sole truth.

With powerful musical interpretation, McDonald cuts through all this like the storm the cast is praying for. She takes a song called "Raunchy," funny on its face, and turns it into a grand mockery of the disingenuous ways people behave. She brings her magnificent, classically trained voice to "Old Maid" - the show's unusual "I want" song - making it a heartbreaking plea for fulfillment.

Lonny Price directs the musical - Broadway's last opening of the season, just in time to be eligible for Tony Award nominations next week - on Santo Loquasto's huge roundtables that move the action and the scenery. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind uses a massive backdrop disk, the visual focus of the show, as a roiling sun or a full moon.

The cast complements McDonald's strength. Bobby Steggert - some will know him as Sam Grey on the TV soap All My Children - beautifully etches a portrayal of Lizzie's put-upon young brother, and Chris Butler plays the other brother, the unflinching Voice of Painful Truth, as if he means it. Christopher Innvar is the lawman who tries hard to fall for Lizzie (in the scripting, he falls so suddenly it's laughable). I congratulate them all for their power in delivering 110 in the Shade's banalities as if no one had ever heard them before. In making the show work so well, they're all rainmakers, for sure.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.

Book by N. Richard Nash, music by Harvey Schmidt, lyrics by Tom Jones. Directed by Lonny Price, choreographed by Dan Knechtges, set and costume design by Santo Loquasto, lighting by Christopher Akerlind, sound by Dan Moses Schrier. Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company.

The cast: Audra McDonald (Lizzie), Steve Kazee (Starbuck), Christopher Innvar (File), John Cullum (H.C. Curry), Chris Butler (Noah), Bobby Steggert (Jimmy), Carla Duren (Snookie).

Playing at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York, through July 15. Tickets: $36.25 to $111.25. Information: 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org. EndText