Dallas — Oh, Rodgers & Hammerstein, you’ve still got my number. We’re such a wised-up bunch of folks nowadays; so tell me how, how can a corn-fed show like State Fair still be such genial, genuine fun? As Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s sprightly if sometimes uneven production bounced along, I found myself trying to control a tapping foot and an irresistible urge to hum…and I don’t care who knows it.
State Fair, you may recall, remains the only R&H musical written directly for the movies. Based on a novel by Phil Strong that became a 1933 movie hit (Will Rogers starred as pig-happy farmer Abel Frake), the 1945 musical version starred Jeanne Crain as farm-girl Margy and Dana Andrews as wise-cracking newsman Pat. Pat Boone and Ann-Margret took the leads in an early ‘60s remake (in Texas, yet!) that’s best forgotten.
This stage version is a relative newcomer, adapted in the mid-1990s by Louis Mattioli and Tom Briggs, who was then the director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Theatre Library. It’s still the story of the Frakes, an Iowa farm family heading to the State Fair (in 1946 this time), with their hopes set on blue ribbons for mom’s mincemeat and dad’s ginormous boar (that’s a pig, city-dwellers) “Blue Boy”—and on adventures for their almost-grown son and daughter.
What’s been added into the mix, though, are a bundle of fine R&H tunes pulled from other musicals: Oklahoma!, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, Allegro. None are well known: some were written for early drafts of a show, others were rehearsed and then cut, and a couple actually made it into the lineup but never became hits.
And here’s where it’s just plain great to have a librarian around: Tom Briggs’ all-access pass to the R&H archives and his sharp curator’s eye found astonishingly perfect “fits” for eight new numbers that feel as though they’ve always been a part of State Fair. None are stand-alone hits, but at several strategic moments, these slipped-in songs truly and movingly deepen our understanding of the characters onstage. As charming as the black-and-white ‘40s film was and is, this new adaptation is a stronger show, filled out and amplified by the expanded roster of songs.
SSG’s production of State Fair is anchored by wonderful choral singing in numbers including “Our State Fair,” “It’s a Grand Night For Singing” and the comically touching hymn to home “All I Owe Ioway.” Kudos to co-directors and SSG company heads Jason and Lauren Morgan for the infectiously tuneful work of the chorus: 20-plus massed singers in a small space, now that’s a wall of sound.
There’s a quartet of singing farmers, too—John Wilkerson as Abel Frake, Martin Antonio Guerra West as Lem, Jonathan Speegle as Hank and Gary Payne as Clay—whose close harmonies delight as they swoon over swine in “More Than Just a Friend.” The foursome also shines adding a barbershop moment to several of the ensemble numbers.
Jenny Tucker and John Wilkerson (a part of State Fair’s original Broadway cast in 1996) are endearingly real and funny as the long-married Melissa and Abel Frake. Their comfy, confident relationship comes through in two affectionate duets—“When I Go Out Walking With My Baby” and “Boys and Girls Like You and Me”—the latter a rousing hooray for the ordinary, everyday romance and marriage that “goes on and on.” Their voices are perfect together, and their dances flirty and cozy: two people still in love, showing “the kids” how it’s done. (In small moments and ensemble numbers both, choreographer Karen Matheny’s work with the company gets better and better.)
Jessica Taylor sings and dances sweetly as spring-feverish Margy Frake, who longs for something or someone she has “yet to meet.” She comes to life when she meets Pat Gilbert (Shafer Bennett Wilkerson, and yes, John is his real-life father), a jokey, playing-the-field news reporter who’s back from covering the war, and bored with covering the fair until he finds his human-interest story in Margy. Shafer’s Pat is a character, but we come to like his oddball humor—and his oddball dancing, too. In one of the “new” songs in the show, “The Man I Used to Be,” Pat looks back at who he’s been, and forward to the new kind of life Margy has made him want. It’s a cute number, but with the undercurrent of real emotion that R&H did so well.
The show’s other romantic couple are Margy’s brother Wayne (Branden Loera, with all the callow energy of a boy becoming a man), who’d like to see more of the world…as embodied by the beautiful Emily (Alexandra Cassens), a touring nightclub chanteuse at the fair. She likes Wayne—a lot—but knows she’ll be moving on. “Nothing complicated,” she tells him. Cassens is a find: she has a bell-clear musical theater voice, dances enchantingly, and makes sure we see the lonely, romantic, but ultimately hard-headed Emily in all her complications. Cassens is backed by a ’40s-style girl group (Nicole Carrano, Emmie Kivell, Angela Germany and Samantha Snow) who sing and swing stylishly.
Kelly Garland plays a crooked barker at the fair—with a fixed grin that doesn’t match his eyes. Nancy Lamb, as a Judge for the “condiments” category, finds Ma Frake’s (secretly) spiked mincemeat all too tasty. She takes little-old-lady tipsiness to new heights. And Delmar H. Dolbier is the grumpiest of Grumpy Old Men as the Frakes’ neighbor Dave, whose five-dollar bet with Abel (that every member of the family will come home happy from the fair) frames the story.
State Fair still isn’t Rodgers & Hammerstein’s best musical—but this expanded edition (call it “the Librarian’s Cut”?) is well worth a look. And much like Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s excellent Oklahoma! at this time last summer, State Fair makes us think back to its creation in the last years of World War II: to soldiers dreaming about Iowa “corn and ham and strawberry jam”…and of the life they hoped to have, once the war was done.