This State Fair Was A Great State Fair

REVIEW BY CARY GINELL (special to BroadwayWorld.com)

The corn was high as an elephant’s eye at the Alex Theatre in Glendale last Sunday as Musical Theater Guild presented a staged reading of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s bucolic musical State Fair, the only musical R&H wrote specifically for the screen. State Fair wasn’t adapted for the stage until 1996, the final show produced by David Merrick, Broadway’s notorious “abominable showman.”

State Fair was the first production Rodgers and Hammerstein worked on after the overwhelming success of their first collaboration, Oklahoma! The musical was based on a 1933 motion picture produced by 20th Century Fox and starring Will Rogers as homespun Iowa pig farmer Abel Frake. The 1945 musical starred Charles Winninger in the Rogers role in a thinly-drawn story about Frake and his family traveling to the Iowa State Fair where Frake’s two teenaged children, Margy and Wayne, find love.  

The 1945 film suffered because there were too many “performance” numbers and not enough of the character studies that made Oklahoma! a game-changer in the history of Broadway musicals. There were only six songs in the film, so when it was remade in 1962, with Tom Ewell leading a cast that also included Ann-Margret, Pat Boone, and Bobby Darin, Rodgers added five new songs to the score (Hammerstein had died in 1960). By the time the 1996 musical came about, only one of the Rodgers additions, “More Than Just a Friend,” had survived. The stage version starred John Davidson as Abel and Kathryn Crosby as his wife Melissa. In addition to the six original songs from the 1945 film and the one Rodgers wrote for the 1962 remake, seven new songs were added, all of them cut from prior R&H shows, including Pipe Dream, Allegro, Me and Juliet, and one, “Boys and Girls Like You,” from Oklahoma! One song, “Driving at Night,” was co-written by James Hammerstein, Oscar’s son, who directed the production.

Staged readings, which feature actors holding scripts, do not include scenery or full sets, and are meant to focus on the performers and the songs. This works especially well with Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, which often focus on character interrelationships. Musical Theatre Guild’s production featured a rich array of talented actors and singers highlighted by winning performances from Kelley Dorney and Will Collyer as the Frake kids, Margy and Wayne.

The lighthearted story doesn’t have a cynical bone in its homespun body. None of the social commentary made famous in R&H’s other musicals is evident, not even shadows of the recently concluded World War II. In the story, the Frake family makes their way to the Iowa state fair, where Abel’s only interest is in pork futures – that is, winning a blue ribbon for his prize-winning hog, Blue Boy, while Mrs. Frake has excitedly entered her pickles and mincemeat into the culinary competition. The only signs of the conflict that had engulfed the world for nearly a decade were a line that said that gas rationing coupons could be cashed in at the fair for a ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl, and a few passing references to the war (“You’ve gone from Midway to the midway,” jokes world-weary war correspondent Pat Gilbert’s fellow scribe). The show’s biggest crisis comes when Blue Boy gets “temperamental,” threatening Abel’s blue ribbon dream. It’s a far cry from Emile De Becque and Lieutenant Joe Cable’s dangerous mission to Bali Ha’i in South Pacific. 

State Fair boasts two of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most famous songs: “It’s a Grand Night for Singing,” one of Rodgers’ patented waltzes, and “It Might As Well Be Spring,” a character song sung by Margy after the show’s opening. Dorney is delightful as the starry-eyed Margy, who falls in love with Pat (a terrific Zachary Ford, wearing a straw hat with the word “Press” tucked into his hat band so we know who he is), but feels that their backgrounds are too different for their relationship to work.

Wayne has a fling with the vivacious Emily Arden, in a terrific performance by Katie DeShan. Emily is an aspiring singer who wants to get to Broadway to star in musicals. DeShan sings one of the better of the added songs to the show, “You Never Had It So Good,” which was cut from Me and Juliet

James Gleason does an excellent job as Abel Frake, sounding like the old actor Parker Fennelly, who played bemused codger Titus Moody (whose tagline was “Howdy, Bub.”) on Fred Allen’s old Allen’s Alley radio program. Carol Kline comes across like one of Charlotte Rae’s frumpy housewives as Melissa Frake, but she and Gleason have a lovely moment when they sing “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” in Act II, bringing to mind the touching duet “Do You Love Me?” from Fiddler on the Roof. The barbershop quartet, which sang Rodgers’ “More Than Just a Friend,” a humorous paean to a hog, although not as harmonious as the songs sung by the members of the school board in The Music Man, was still well-received. 

The production numbers, especially the rousing “All I Owe Ioway,” were choreographed by director Daniel Smith, and received thunderous ovations, while Corey Hirsch led the outstanding up-stage orchestra. State Fair is a far cry from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best works, but any time one of their rarely seen shows is staged, it’s worth making a trip to see it, and for all of its naïve sentimentality and lack of real drama, it’s still an irresistible show.

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