Rodgers & Hammerstein’s State Fair

State Fair
Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli, based on the novel by Phil Stong and the screenplay by Oscar Hammerstein II

Abel Frake – Philip Rahm
Wayne Frake – Karl Clarkson
Margy Frake – Laura Main
Emily Arden – Jodie Jacobs
Melissa Frake – Susan Travers
Pat Gilbert – Stephen McGlynn
Charlie – Gillian McCafferty
Harry – Richard Vincent
Mr Miller/ Judge Heppenstahl – Anthony Wise
Eleanor – Gemma Boaden
Gus – Lewis Grant
Ensemble: Robine Landi, Michael Kent & Helen Phillips

Sarah Bodalbhai (assistant musical director & piano)

Thom Southerland – Director
Magnus Gilljam – Musical director
Sally Brooks – Choreographer
Philippa Mumford – Designer
Howard Hudson & Mike Robertson – Lighting designers

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 12 August, 2010
Venue: Trafalgar Studio 2, Whitehall, London SW1

It is no overstatement to say that much of the best theatre in London is out there on the fringe. What would we do without it when it can revive long-forgotten works that no West End management would ever touch again? However, fringe-theatres can also feed work into the West End. Take, for example, the tiny Finborough, above a pub in Earl’s Court, which devotedly puts on new plays and new musicals because hardly anybody else does. Recently the Finborough premiered “Plague Over England”, a play about attitudes to homosexuality in the 1950s, by former theatre critic Nicholas De Jongh which sold out at the Earl’s Court venue and then moved into the Duchess Theatre – it is now slated for a film version. The Finborough also revives forgotten classics. Its new season from September 2010 includes not only Walter Greenwood and Ronald Gow’s “Love on the Dole” and Graham Greene’s “The Potting Shed”, but also “Me and Juliet”, the 1953 Rodgers & Hammerstein show that has never played in Europe, let alone London.

Currently gracing the West End stage is a charming show that had its European premiere a year ago at the Finborough and is now playing to packed and enthusiastic houses at the Trafalgar Studios. This is Rodgers & Hammerstein’s version of Phil Stong’s 1932 novel “State Fair”, which they wrote as an original film musical in 1945. The popularity of the novel led to its being made as a non-musical film in 1933 with Janet Gaynor, Will Rogers, Lew Ayres, Norman Foster and Louise Dresser. It was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award (losing to “Cavalcade”), as well as for Best Adaptation, losing to “Little Women”. The 1945 musical film version starred Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, Dick Haymes, Vivian Blaine, Charles Winninger and Faye Bainter. It won an Oscar that year for the song ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s only Academy Award. It was also nominated for Best Scoring of a Musical, but lost out to “Anchors Aweigh”.

The film musical of “State Fair” was re-made in 1962 with Pat Boone, Bobby Darin, Pamela Tiffin, Ann-Margret, Alice Faye and Tom Ewell, and for which Rodgers wrote some extra songs (Hammerstein had died two years earlier). It was subsequently adapted for the theatre and received its stage premiere in 1969 by the St Louis Municipal Opera with Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. Many years later it toured, beginning at the 1995 Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, and eventually arrived in New York the following year with Donna McKechnie, Andrea McArdle, John Davidson and Kathryn Crosby. It was nominated for five Tony Awards, although it ran for only just over a hundred performances. A TV series was planned but got no further than a pilot.

It was James Hammerstein (Oscar’s son) who turned “State Fair” into a stage show. As there were only five songs in the 1945 film, further numbers were added that had been featured in, or cut from, other Rodgers & Hammerstein shows. (Richard Rodgers had died in 1979.) It includes material from the shows “Allegro”, “Pipe Dream”, “Oklahoma!”, “Me and Juliet”, plus a song from the 1962 film remake. “State Fair” is the story of the Frake family, Abel and Melissa, and their children Wayne and Margy who have been brought up on a farm and know no other life. But they feel they are living in more modern times than their parents’ traditional ways. They want to break out and see the world. When she sings ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’ young Margy says she “feels as restless as a willow in a windstorm” but she’s not sure why. A visit to the annual state fair will let her make that break as she meets new and exciting people like reporter Pat Gilbert while brother Wayne is much taken by budding singer Emily Arden. Mother Melissa is entering her mincemeat in the competition and father Abel hopes his prize boar Blue Boy will win a rosette.

It is a thoroughly appealing show with a heart as big as all outdoors and, whereas last year director Thom Southerland could hardly have found a smaller space than the Finborough in which to stage it, with the Trafalgar Studios he appears to have an even tinier area in which to mount a full Broadway show with songs and plenty of movement in excellent dancing and choreography. In fact he takes full advantage of the intimate space and yet produces a chamber version that is no less warm, witty or wise than its musical movie version.

The show is a mixture of comedy and romance, with the state fair prize-giving rituals providing much of the comedy, while the pursuit of happiness delivers the romantic element. The original songs, ‘Our State Fair’, ‘That’s for Me’, ‘Isn’t It Kinda Fun?’ and ‘It’s a Grand Night for Singing’ come across well. Of the additional songs ‘More Than Just a Friend’ is a lullaby to a sick pig. ‘Boys and Girls Like You and Me’ fits in well, even though it was a number cut from “Oklahoma!” and has sometimes been used in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s television version of “Cinderella”.

Some of the original company have been recast here, although the three principals, Abel, Melissa and Margy, and Judge Heppenstahl remain the same. Philip Rahm and Susan Travers as the Frake parents, Abel and Melissa, are a typical farming couple, straight out of a Norman Rockwell print. Laura Main is sympathetic as Margy, frail and dreamy like a young Mia Farrow, while Jodie Jacobs as singer Emily Arden couldn’t be more different, a woman of the world who knows what she wants and how to get it. Karl Clarkson as Wayne is a typical Rodgers & Hammerstein hero, all beef and show like Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” or Curly McLain in “Oklahoma!”. Anthony Wise doubles up as Mr Miller and Judge Heppenstahl who gets hooked on the alcoholic content of Melissa’s prizewinning mincemeat, providing good comic relief.

Having had great success with reviving classic American musicals such as “Annie Get Your Gun”, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”, “Calamity Jane”, “Call Me Madam” and “Singin’ in the Rain”, Southerland has in his time also staged “Oklahoma!” and now “State Fair” again, both by Rodgers & Hammerstein. His next show at the Finborough is another R & H piece, “Me and Juliet” which receives its European premiere there on 5 October this year. No doubt Southerland will win where others have failed. In 1953 the show lasted not much more than 350 performances, even with Shirley MacLaine in the chorus. Southerland will find a way, I am sure, of bringing a ‘lost’ show by major writers back to brilliant life.

  • State Fair continues at the Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London SW1 until Saturday 11 September: Monday to Saturday at 7.45 p.m., matinees Thursday & Saturday at 3 p.m.
  • Tickets: 0870 060 6632

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