There have been three movie versions of State Fair, and the best one is probably the first, a 1933 film starring Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor. That's because the story's folksiness and sugary sweetness went out with ... well, Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor.
Rodgers and Hammerstein entered the picture in 1945, when they musicalized State Fair (originally a novel by Phil Stong) for their only film score. Although it won them an Oscar for "It Might as Well Be Spring," State Fair has generally been considered one of the great duo's lesser efforts. The show didn't make it to Broadway until 1995, in an adaptation by Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli-who, as it happens, are former directors with the St. Bart's Players, the well-funded community theater that brought the most recent stage production of State Fair to NYC.
This was a good-looking production. The set by Jeremy Morris featured several venues at the Iowa State Fair-including midway booths and marquees and the dance hall-as well as the Frake family's farm, complete with the vehicle they drive to the fair with dad's prized (but unseen) hog aboard. A Broadway-size stage would have better accommodated the fairgrounds and all the fairgoers, but nothing looked skimpy or inauthentic about the set pieces. Costume designer Kimberly Glennon was also thoroughgoing in her work, and the cast's wardrobe-the obligatory overalls, 1940s dresses, a showgirl's costumes, even pig and cow suits-was apropos the era and characters.
The show itself, though, is cumbrously dated. The Frakes' preparing for their outing to the fair as if it were an exotic voyage, and their discovery that even in Ioway some folk jes' ain't honest an' upright, may have been intended as a satire of Midwestern provincialism-the program quotes from the novel: "It suddenly occurred to all of them that life went on, far outside their consciousness, in many places and at all times"-but by now it plays out as gee-whiz cornball. Even the postwar fondness for hearth-and-home (the musical's set in August 1946) seems quaint in light of the more profound "greatest generation" reverence that now colors World War II nostalgia.
The performances in State Fair, heartfelt as they may have been, were mostly community-theater caliber and thus could not elevate the hokey material-although there was excellent dancing of the softshoe, swing, and tap varieties in the numbers "Isn't It Kinda Fun?", "You Never Had It So Good", and "Our State Fair" (choreography by Kenneth Grider, also a dancer in the show). Tops among the lead actors was Rob Riley as father Frake; most memorable among the supporting cast were Jim Mullins as another farmer and 12-year-old Emily Herrin as an eager adolescent. Musical director Jason Sirois conducted a small orchestra that sounded fine while accompanying singers but was amateurishly out-of-sync in some instrumental portions.
(Also featuring Melissa Broder, Tina Throckmorton, Dominic Paolillo, Courtney Stanford, Joe Kassner, Hari Krishnaswami, Angela Jenson, Bradford Harlan, Emily Griebel, Paul Andrew Jones, John C. Taylor, Vikki Willoughby, Elizabeth Gravitt, Rich Fisher, Susan Boskoff, Tish Zimmerman, Gregory Juliano, Judith Tsanos, Michael Deutschman and Scott Kerstetter.)
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Copyright 2001 Adrienne Onofri