Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair, a stage musical based on their 1945 movie. It is a gentle, innocent reminder of an America that should have existed but didn'tor did only in the hearts and minds of romantics like prolific novelist Phil Stong, who knew what to leave out in order to reflect people's dreams about themselves, and artists like Rodgers and Hammerstein, who knew all too well how to turn such romantic figments into successful theater. As a story, it is as slender and winsome as Margy, its charming ingenue. Musically, it is a kind of patchwork, especially in the version currently on display at Stages St. Louis, which pulls together songs from the original movie and a handful of other Rodgers & Hammerstein shows to create a score that is alternately pedestrian and brilliant.
"It Might As Well Be Spring," which Margy sings near the beginning of the evening, is one of a handful of American songs in which music and lyrics are so beautifully married that it is hard to imagine them coming from separate hands. "It's a Grand Night For Singing" is among the very best examples of Rodgers and Hammerstein's wonderfully appealing choral music. Aside from those, the score is competent, often pleasant, but seldom memorable.
Under Michael Hamilton's direction, the lively and colorfully-costumed characters of the Frake family and the more worldly types they encounter at the Iowa State Fair fill the stage at the Robert G. Reim Theater in Kirkwood with energy. Christopher Vettel, as the father Abel Frake, has a marvelous voice and a charming stage presence; the lovely and versatile Kari Ely is delightful as his wife. St. Louis favorite Whit Reichert is hilarious in the plum cameo role of Judge Heppenstahl, who gets a little tipsy sampling Mrs. Frake's whisky-enhanced mincemeat. Young Abigail Isom, who gets the show's other great cameo, Violet, is absolutely brilliant.
The two pairs of lovers, one star-crossed, the other starry-eyed, are played with flair by Preston Ellis (Wayne Frake) and Hollie Howard (Emily Arden) and by Julie Hanson (Margy Frake) and Jim Newman (Pat Gilbert). John Flack, Joseph Torello and Mike Dowdy join Mr. Vettel to make a nifty quartet of farmers who sing excellent barbershop.
James Wolk's charming, technicolor sets make excellent use of the idiosyncratic stage of the Reim theater. His rendering of the kitchen and backyard of the Frake farm, with which the show opens and closes, is both ingenious and meticulously realizedone of the best pieces of stagecraft in the long and distinguished history of the Stages company. Lou Bird's costumes, especially for the women and most especially for Margy, Mrs. Frake, and Emily Arden, are impeccable.
All in all, this is an inviting production of a pleasant and often charming show. State Fair will run through October 3 at the Robert Reim Theater in the Kirkwood Community Center. For performance and ticket information, call 314-821-2407 or visit www.stagesstlouis.org.