Though Broadway has been awash in musical revivals and “revisals” since Lincoln Center Theater’s smash “Anything Goes” kicked off the trend in 1987, none has been so proudly retrograde as “State Fair”– and it’s not even a revival. This premiere stage adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s sole Hollywood foray wants to throb with the same sentimental heartbeat as the 1945 original. That movie (not to mention the 1962 remake), however, was unmistakably the second-drawer sophomore effort of a team that was riding high on the success of “Oklahoma!” and already looking ahead to “Carousel.”
Though it produced one authentic classic in “It Might as Well Be Spring” (which won an Oscar in 1945 as best song), “State Fair” was R&H coasting, and the new show can only underscore that assessment.
A summer stock patchwork outfitted with a new book and songs lifted from other chapters in the R&H songbook, this Theater Guild production, flying under the David Merrick banner, never justifies the effort.
Merrick’s name hasn’t graced the title page of a Broadway show since the flop “Oh, Kay!” in 1991. The Theater Guild has been absent even longer, its last Broadway outing having been the 1974 “Golda,” the once great but now calcified institution reduced more recently to packaging theater cruises.
I’d love to report that their return was warranted by what’s onstage at the Music Box, but even the promise made when that intimate venue was announced — that the orchestra would be heard unamplified — has been broken, as anyone subjected to the blaring, screechy overture will quickly recognize.
The show, originated in a workshop at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1992, has done fairly terrific business since a nationwide tour launched last August in Des Moines at the Iowa State Fair, the show’s locale.
More important, it’s been given a free pass by critics who should know better , describing at best what it might have been instead of dealing with the resolutely second-rate enterprise up on the stage. That will prove no service to either the company of seasoned vets or ticket buyers, who will turn to sharper, more sophisticated revivals currently available.
It is certainly the case that James Leonard Joy’s minimal flat- and drop-dominated sets look better in the Music Box than they must have in some of the barns on the road; they’d look even better at the Cape Playhouse, which is really where “State Fair” belongs.
It should become a great summer season favorite, this story of pig farmer Abel Frake (John Davidson), wife Melissa (Kathryn Crosby), recent high-school graduate son Wayne (Ben Wright) and teen daughter Margy (Andrea McArdle), both kids engaged, more or less, to locals.
Mom and Dad go for the blue ribbons with pig, pickles and spiked mincemeat. Wayne falls for Emily Arden (Donna McKechnie), a road chantoosie with Gotham ambitions. Margy comes under the spell of Pat Gilbert (Scott Wise), a wire service reporter hoping to land a job at a real paper. Over the course of a few days on the midway and nights under the stars, Wayne and Margy grow up some.
Davidson and Crosby are, and look, old enough to be Wayne and Margy’s grandparents, a fact the directing and choreographic team of James Hammerstein and Randy Skinner unwisely set in bold relief with two schmaltzy, geriatric duets, “When I Go Out Walking With My Baby” and “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” (both songs were cut from “Oklahoma!”).
McArdle gets the plum singing assignment, introducing “It Might as Well Be Spring,” and while she sure has grown up since “Annie” nearly 20 years ago, her style hasn’t: Her head cocked at a 45-degree angle, eyes trained on some point beyond the theater, McArdle delivers “Spring” and all her other numbers with the same chipper pop vapidity.
I’ve heard her sing in more intimate settings and can attest to her ability to find a character in a song; not here. Starry-eyed? Yes. Vaguely discontented? Not a bit.
McKechnie, on the other hand, may be too seasoned for Emily, who comes across not as a woman who knows exactly where she’s headed but, rather, as one who has too early come to the conclusion that she’ll never get there. Giving her “So Far”– from “Allegro”– to sing with the blandly likable Wright is a nice touch.
Blandly likable is the best that can be said of Skinner’s dances; on the evidence here, he doesn’t have an original or even an interesting choreographic idea in his head. Wise, one of Broadway’s finest dancers, is wasted in two generic numbers, and while the big production dances –“It’s a Grand Night for Singing” and “All I Owe Ioway,” the one boring, the other inane — reveal plenty of femme leg (a Merrick signature), they never reach the level of sheer exuberance that R&H shows struck in the title song from “Oklahoma!”, say, or “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” from “Carousel.”
Indeed, it’s by comparison to the recent Nicholas Hytner-Kenneth Macmillan “Carousel” and the current Hal Prince-Susan Stroman “Show Boat” that “State Fair” most suffers. True, those shows are much more serious in intent, while “State Fair” wishes only to be pleasant.
But even padded with pickings from other shows, it still boasts only 1 1/2 great songs. By the middle of the first act, “Our State Fair” has been reprised so often you wish the whole show would just shut up.
Innocuous and empty-headed, “State Fair” tries awfully hard to please, but the joy it offered in 1945 was ersatz, and the joy it offers today is ersatz in amber.