Since Oscar Hammerstein died in 1960 and Richard Rodgers 20 years later, it never occurred to me that I would ever review a "new" Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which "State Fair" is sort of.
The show, which has such songs as "It's a Grand Night for Singing" and "It Might As Well Be Spring," was written as a screenplay in 1945. It was based on a quiet, beautiful 1933 film with Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor about an Iowa farmer's family going to the fair. Papa is entering his prize boar, Mama her pickles and mincemeat. I don't want to give away too much, but I can reveal that their two teenager children discover love.
The Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli book for the stage version tells the simple story deftly and incorporates songs from the 1945 film and one from a 1962 remake, as well as songs cut from "Oklahoma!" and "Me and Juliet" and songs used in "Pipe Dream" and "Allegro."
The amalgam complete with references to an icecream crank off and cow tipping is amiable hokum, performed with gusto and with affection for the material.
The cast is also nostalgia-laden. John Davidson makes a hearty, full-throated Farmer Frake. As his nervous wife, Kathryn Crosby, whose voice evokes Big Band singers, is endearing.
The standout performer is Ben Wright, who plays the corny role of the son with great believability and hauntingly sings "So Far," from "Allegro." As his sister, Andrea McArdle sings a charmless "It Might As Well Be Spring" but is a bit better on "The Next Time It Happens" from "Pipe Dream."
Donna McKechnie and Scott Wise do some fancy dancing in stereotyped roles as the romantic interests, Charles Goff is dandy in his dual role as two rubes, and Peter Benson plays a dullard affectingly.
The show is best when people are singing especially the choral numbers and some rousing barbershop quartets or dancing Randy Skinner's frisky choreography. In Bruce Pomahac's orchestrations, the score has a recognizable R & H grandness.
For some time the audience for musical theater has been largely tourists, who have been easy marks for British spectacle. It seems only fair that folks from the hinterlands should also be able to be conned by old-fashioned Americana. "State Fair" fills the bill admirably.
The overture starts and almost immediately you feel that unmistakable floorboard surge of Richard Rogers, the wrap around melodies, the cheeky perkiness, the all but homogenized show-biz glamour - yes, this music is the real thing, to be sure.
A new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical? Well, almost, although admittedly that overture which has just knocked your socks off does sound somewhat familiar - weren't those the strains of "It's a Grand Night for Singing," and surely that was an overture pre-hear of "It Might as Well Be Spring"?
Despite such familiarities, at least this is a "new" R&H for Broadway, not quite the kind of wholesale, sea-change adaptation from an original which, a few seasons back, provided us with that "new" Gershwin musical, "Crazy for You."
"State Fair," which opened last night at the Music Box Theater is a stage version of the well-known 20th Century Fox 1945 movie musical of the same name, with a new book that at least keeps to the original outline, and even with many of the same songs!
The track record of movie musicals transmogrified into Broadway vehicles is not a happy one - "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," "Gigi," "Meet Me in St. Louis." It's a graveyard with distinguished tombstones. And "State Fair" was never Rodgers and Hammerstein at their golden best.
It was written when they were both flush with success, bouncing off "Oklahoma!" two years previously, and when Darryl Zanuck suggested a musical version of Phil Strong's novel "State Fair," which had already been a successful 1932 movie with Will Roger and Janet Gaynor, they unwisely jumped at it.
It was meant to do for Iowa what "Oklahoma!" did for Oklahoma. But it didn't. The spin-off resolutely refused to spin, and when it was remade in 1962 that refusal seemed cast in stone. Yet, in some happy ways, it does better on stage.
The new book writers, Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli, while utilizing Hammerstein's screenplay, have also gone back to the novel, with neat and shipshape results. Unfortunately it still lacks - as did the movies - much in the way of drama.
Old folk with a pig and pickles and young folk, their children, with romantic notions go to Iowa's 1946 State Fair - a year change presumably to explain the lack of servicemen in the cast. The oldsters win prizes, the youngsters learn lessons. Happiness is sung by all.
The score, while keeping the big favorites, has been much amended, with the addition of one song from the second movie, and seven numbers from other R&H shows, including two cut from "Oklahoma!" before its opening.
It's still not a first-rate R&H score, but in these days of spritzer and rosewater even a less than first-rate R&H score is definitely not to be sneezed at.
And the staging - efficiently co-directed by James Hammerstein and the choreographer Randy Skinner, with agreeably, pretty, if utilitarian, settings by James Leonard Joy, - and the performances both prove modestly attractive.
Among the performers the men are markedly better than the women, with, outstandingly debonair Scott Wise, dancing like a devil in the cynical Dana Andrews role, plus a nicely ornery John Davidson as the pig-loving father, and Ben Wright, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as the son.
Among the women both Kathryn Crosby's pickle-packing mama and Andrea McArdle's dewy-eyed daughter seem a shade charmless but Donna McKechnie does fine as a vamp with a heart of gold.
It didn't make me want to go to Iowa in a hurry, but I enjoyed myself, as I think will everyone who can welcome a modestly produced musical where "the corn is as highs an elephant's eye."
Phil Stong's folksy, homespun novel, "State Fair," is as impossible to brush off as lint. First filmed in 1933 with a cast headed by Will Rogers, it was remade in 1945 as a movie musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 2d, a production that in turn was remade in 1962. "State Fair" still clings today, in large part because of the lilting score that includes such songs as "It Might as Well Be Spring," "That's for Me" and "Our State Fair." Be warned, however: If you allow any one of the melodies to penetrate your consciousness, you put yourself at risk. It will buzz around in the mind forever, or until a deep doze sets you free.
That's being demonstrated once again at the Music Box Theater, where a mostly charmless "State Fair" opened last night, refashioned as a Broadway show adapted from the Hammerstein screenplay.
Directed by James Hammerstein (the son of Oscar) and Randy Skinner, who's also the choreographer, this "State Fair" has been touring since last summer, though it looks less tired than seriously uninspired. Here's a faithful, utterly mechanical stage replica of a work that, while it was never exactly top-drawer, was typical of the kind of miracles Rodgers and Hammerstein could pull off when in good form.
Taking Stong's novel about the adventures of a farm family at the Iowa State Fair, the collaborators created a work so lightly disingenuous that it seemed to be instant Americana. They weren't playing false; they were being true to their times.
Rodgers and Hammerstein could do no wrong when "State Fair," their only Hollywood commission, arrived in New York on Aug. 30, 1945, two weeks and two days after the end of World War II. Their seminal "Oklahoma!" was in its third year at the St. James Theater and the dark, lyrical "Carousel" was in its fifth month at the Majestic. Today the film looks less like a conventional Hollywood musical than a work conceived to boost civilian morale. Indeed, its technical craftsmanship and its idealized style recall Norman Rockwell's magazine covers and illustrations, as well as his contribution to the war effort: the poster series celebrating President Roosevelt's Four Freedoms.
There's nothing wrong with the good old family values that "State Fair" is still promoting, except they're now being promoted with less theatrical guile than brazen push. Typical is John Davidson's performance as Abel Frake, husband to Melissa (Kathryn Crosby) and father of the virginal Margy (Andrea McArdle) and Wayne (Ben Wright).
Don't be fooled by Abel's spotless overalls. He's a farmer, but as the model-handsome Mr. Davidson plays him, Abel has the soul of a salesman. Like a Las Vegas lounge act, the actor sings well enough and never stops selling himself. The broad smiles, the arched eyebrows, the large winks won't quit. At the end of the show you wouldn't be surprised to find him loitering in the lobby, waiting to sign autographs.
Ms. McArdle also has a good voice. In "State Fair" she never threatens to pierce the eardrums, as she did in "Annie" back in 1977. That's a bonus. Yet now that she has been around for a while, she also exhibits a certain frosty show-business savvy that's at odds with the dewy sentiments expressed in Margy's signature song, "It Might as Well Be Spring." It takes more than saddle shoes, bobby socks and little gingham dresses with puffed sleeves to convince an audience that she's a farmer's romantically bewildered daughter. It takes an actress's conviction.
For all of its Broadway talent, "State Fair" is a remarkably listless show. Donna McKechnie, still potential dynamite, has very little to do as Emily Arden, the fair's worldly band singer. It's Emily who introduces Wayne Frake to the joys and heartaches that can result from "going all the way," as it would have been put in 1946, the period of this show.
Ms. McKechnie has one duet ("So Far") with Mr. Wright and sings and dances twice with a four-man group called (in the show) the Fairtones. Yet only in "That's the Way It Happens," in Act II, does she have a chance briefly to kick up her heels in the manner the audience remembers from "A Chorus Line." It's not too late, but it is too little.
Mr. Skinner's choreography is without defining zip until the second act, when Scott Wise, playing the newspaper reporter Margy falls for, effectively takes over the show. In two numbers, Mr. Wise (a Tony winner for "Jerome Robbins's Broadway") taps, leaps and slides with the exuberant style needed to give "State Fair" some of the excitement otherwise lacking. Note, too, the expert dancing of Darrian C. Ford, who joins Mr. Wise at one point.
The five songs from the original film score have been supplemented by seven that were either featured in, or cut from, other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. There's also one, "More Than Just a Friend," a jokey barbershop quartet, which Rodgers wrote for the 1962 remake after Hammerstein's death. None immediately measures up to the original five.
Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli, who wrote the show's book, have not extended themselves to find stage equivalents to some of the film's more winning sequences. This includes the tiny subplot about the unrequited passion of Blue Boy, Abel's prize-winning Hampshire boar, for Esmeralda, another boar. Because there are no boars in this show, the writers simply have Abel come onto the stage and tell us what happened.
The method is straightforward, functional, blunt. That also describes the performances by Ms. Crosby and Mr. Wright; the pastel-prettified, intentionally rather old-fashioned scenery, and the entire faux-naif production.
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.