“State Fair” is a mighty unusual confection. The songs from the only musical Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote for the bigscreen have been combined with a newly penned book, albeit one based on Hammerstein’s 1945 screenplay. Then the new theatrical pot has been sweetened by songs once deleted from the final versions of other legit tuners written by the celebrated duo. But the crowd-pleasing charms of the resulting “new” musical are considerable and compelling. Codirectors Randy Skinner and James Hammerstein have developed a delightfully retro production of a remarkably unified piece of musical theater. “State Fair” looks set for a highly successful national tour and fully deserves an entry into the great Broadway cook-off.
The producers of this wholesome familial celebration had the savvy to combine its Des Moines launch in August with the real Iowa State Fair, attracting much ink and charming the pants off assorted urban scribes unused to cavorting on Midwestern midways. But on a Tuesday night in the barn-like Peopria Civia Center, the initially pokerfaced local judges arenot distracted by any surrounding carnival atmosphere: A witty book, lush R&H songs and a barrelful of strong performances are what provoked the lengthy and much-deserved standing ovation.
The narrative of “State Fair” has all of the simplicity of a corn dog. The events surround the experiences of a rural Iowa family — mom, pop, son, daughter — at the 1946 summer shindig that forms the high point of their limited lives. The father (John Davidson) is concerned with the fortunes of his prize porker, his wife (Kathryn Crosby) worries about the mincemeat judging and their restless kids (Andrea McArdle and Ben Wright) look for the possibilities of carefree summer love. Their partners of choice are a dancing reporter with dreams (Scott Wise) and a city-slicker singer (Donna McKechnie) who thinks that cow-tipping involves a gratuity. By the end of the fair and the show, some friendly neighborly rivalries and troubling romantic triangles have been resolved, but there have been no bad dreams or men with knives. The relentlessly optimistic “State Fair” has no room for a Jud or a Jigger: Conflict , troubles and secret desires are here all as fleeting as the fair the evening celebrates.
What is truly remarkable is the way what could be a very trite show carefully avoids most of the traps of triviality or sentimentality, thanks mainly to a sparklingly witty book by Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli. The characters are all vividly drawn and appealing and although the show has fun with rural behavior, it has no truck with caricature. Peppered with Midwestern color and folksy charm, the amusing dialogue scenes point up the quiet dichotomies that give the nostalgic show its gentle but pervasive conflicts — parents realize their children need freedom, kids learn the value of constancy, and rural idealism meets and defeats urban cynicism just before the beguiling fair is revealed to be nothing more than canvas and plywood. There’s a palpable sense of humanity to the book sections that give the show sufficient gravitas for us to believe (of be deluded into believing) that “State Fair” is about something worthwhile.
Next to “Carousel” or “Oklahoma,” even the expanded score of this new “State Fair” seems reprise-heavy and limited. But there are enough familiar tunes — “It Might As Well Spring,” “A Grand Night for Singing” — for an audience to feel at home. And although there is no show-stopping musical tour de force, the appealing added numbers have all of the melodic richness we associate with Rodgers.
The genial performances all match this material beautifully. Davidson turns in a nicely selfeffacing effort as a gruff lines such as “Well, I’ll be breaded and deep-fried” with a measure of authenticity. Crosby is quiet and truthful as his wife. McArdle may have matured on stage, but her sonorous voice has lost none of its appeal from her “Annie” days. McKechnie’s urbanity contrasts nicely with the rurals, and (although he mumbles some of his early lines) Wise dances splendidly and edudes slick charm. With a fine voice and handsome demeanor, Wright is also excellent, and there’s some funny character work from the whimsical Charles Goff, playing a pair of disparate Iowa cccentries. One never has the sense of dominating star power at work here, and it seems appropriate that the unselfish name performers blend so well with both each other and the solid ensemble.
Although they were crammed into the narrow Peoria stage, James Leonard Joy’s Rockwellian settings — combinations of leafy borders, overtly theatrical backdrops and a few three-dimensional set-pieces — beautifully realize the old-fashioned spirit of this piece. With the addition of bright costumes by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case and warm, glowing lighting from Natasha Katz, Joy’s idealized vision of rural Iowa looks like pages from a pop-up book.
Whether New York is too fast and contemporary for such a traditional show remains to be seen, and there is no question that “State Fair” will be skewed to an older crowd on the road. In any event, “State Fair” is a fine piece of theater that deserves plenty of visitors.