Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Well, it's anything but. The Walnut Street Theatre has given the 1996 stage adaptation of State Fair a good, consistently enjoyable production. It may not be a classic, but this version of State Fair proves to be a real charmer.
The story is simple: The Frake family leaves its farm and heads to the Iowa State Fair in pursuit of blue ribbonsfather Abel has entered his hog in the competition, while mother Melissa competes in the food categories. Meanwhile, their college-age children head for the midway, where they find love and heartbreak. Will everyone find happiness in the end?
State Fair may be lacking in surprises, but it's surprisingly low on corniness too. That's due in part to some shrewd casting; there's nice chemistry (and strong singing) from each of the show's romantic couples. Mark Jacoby and Dee Hoty are solid and authentic as the parents who still have deep affection for each other. Jacoby is particularly good as a world-weary farmer; he may be the most restrained leading man you'll ever see in a musical, but his subtle performance captures the character's heart without an ounce of unnecessary bluster.
Cary Michele Miller is equally good as daughter Margy. State Fair is largely a story about how Margy grows up, and it's wonderful to see Miller change from a wistful farm girl (singing a gorgeous, plaintive version of "It Might As Well Be Spring") to a strong woman who blooms when she wins the attention of a tough reporter (David Elder). Miller more than holds her own with tap master Elder in a Fred-and-Ginger-style dance number, "Isn't It Kinda Fun?"
Joe Jackson plays Margy's brother Wayne, and is very believable as a farm boy overwhelmed by his romance with a nightclub singer. That singer is played by Kelley Faulkner, the show's one casting misstep. While her fondness for Wayne is convincing, Faulkner comes on way too strong in her dance numbers and seems to be trying way too hard to be sultry.
Even the supporting cast gets a chance to make an impact: Lee Golden shines as a crusty neighbor; Fran Prisco has several nice comic moments as a surly carnival barker and a drunken judge; and Owen Pelesh, as Margy's spurned suitor, strikes notes both comic and poignant. Under Bruce Lumpkin's adept direction, all the actors seem to care about the characters they play, and that's why the audience cares for them too.
The stage adaptation fleshes out the bare-bones score of the film by adding songs from lesser-known Rodgers and Hammerstein shows (plus one song Rodgers wrote for the 1962 film remake). Some of these inserted numbers work well ("So Far"), some fit awkwardly ("The Man I Used To Be"), but none damage the show. And there's some quite capable choreography by Michelle Gaudette, notably on the exuberant ensemble number "All I Owe Ioway."
Director Lumpkin gets a tone that is sweet, but not too sugary. There may not be much depth to his production of State Fair, but there's nothing cloying or embarrassing about it either. It's got great songs, some funny lines, a terrific cast and a gently nostalgic look at a bygone era.
State Fair runs through October 19, 2008 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $70, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.