Play: “State Fair”
Group: Stages St. Louis
Venue: Robert Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Civic Center, 111 S. Geyer Rd.
Dates: Through October 4
Tickets: From $15 to $49; 821-2407 or stagesstlouis.org.
Story: Summertime and the livin’ is easy in Iowa in the post-war year of 1946, at least for the three days that the farming Frake family are taking off to enjoy the centennial edition of the Iowa State Fair. Abel Frake is looking to take first place honors with his prized boar, while his wife Melissa is hoping to garner recognition for her mincemeat pies.
As for son Wayne and daughter Margy, they’re looking for love on the midway, especially after Wayne has upset girlfriend Eleanor by not appearing happy about her acceptance to nursing school, and Margy is reluctant to commit seriously to childhood friend Harry, who wants to marry her now that they’ve graduated from high school. When Wayne catches the eye of traveling entertainer Emily and Margy is smitten with the attentions of a UPI reporter named Pat, they might win more than trinkets at the myriad carny booths.
Highlights: Based on the only original musical ever written for the screen by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, “State Fair” was adapted into a stage musical in its world premiere at The Muny back in 1969, then lay dormant until it was resurrected for a national tour and Broadway opening in 1996. A patchwork of tunes from several Rodgers and Hammerstein sources, including three lesser known musicals and two movie versions, it’s a breezy, charming and thoroughly delightful presentation in its present incarnation by Stages St. Louis. The straightforward book is by Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli, based on Hammerstein’s screenplay and a 1932 novel by Phil Stong that is short on surprises but a satisfactory foundation for the gentle humor and agreeable music.
Michael Hamilton’s direction is as smooth and tasty as home-churned apple butter, and his musical staging is a stylish feast for the senses. He’s complemented by consistently fabulous choreography courtesy of Dana Lewis, who shrewdly uses virtually every square inch of space on the compact stage. Number after number provides ample opportunity for Hamilton’s engaging cast to dance up a lively storm in vintage ‘40s bits that are captivating and entertaining.
Other Info: James Wolk’s scenic design is a colorful array of bright backdrops to indicate the expansiveness of the midway, with more three-dimensional elements such as a mobile home facade and the Frake kitchen back home to add depth to the look and feel of the locale. All of it is effectively illuminated with Matthew McCarthy’s wide-ranging lighting design, from the clever headlights on the Frake auto to the bright lights that accentuate Emily’s production numbers. Lou Bird’s costumes capture the look of the post-war era, and the lush orchestral design by Stuart Elmore and musical direction by Lisa Campbell Albert offer fine musical support for the cast.
Stages veteran Kari Ely provides a solid anchor for the uniformly smooth cast as the amorous and agreeable Melissa Frake. She pairs nicely with Stages newcomer Christopher Vettel on easy numbers such as “When I Go Walking with My Baby” and “Boys and Girls Like You and Me.” Julie Hanson demonstrates her notable voice as Margy on the recognizable tune, “It Might As Well Be Spring,” and shows fine acting ability as well. Preston Ellis is fine as the likable Frake son, Wayne, and shows nice chemistry with the effervescent Hollie Howard as Emily. The latter delivers the goods on a couple of show numbers with a brisk backup of boys known as The Fairtones, who are played stylishly by Andrew Laudel, Mark Roland, Nic Thompson and Matthew Winnegge.
Whit Reichert has the show’s funniest scene as the increasingly inebriated food judge and also plays an irascible merchant. Jim Newman’s performance as the ambitious reporter offers a realistic blend of sincerity and vanity, with suitable support by Zak Edwards as his photographer crony. There’s also a marvelous recurring piece of barbershop quartet warbling by four farmers played by John Flack, Joseph Torello, Mike Dowdy and Vettel, highlighted by their paean to pork pals, “More Than Just a Friend.”
Lani Corson and Colin Israel have their moments to shine as Eleanor and Harry, while Taylor Pietz and Lisa Ramey get in plenty of legwork as midway molls under the aegis of Shaun Sheley as “The Astounding Stralenko.” Young Abigail Isom is infectiously charming as the police chief’s mischievous daughter, Zoe Vonder Haar is an annoyingly perennial winner at the fair food competition and Darin Wood is an exasperated barker.
It’s a large cast and a lengthy show at about two and a half hours, but it’s also the best work in Stages’ 2010 prime-time season and certainly chockfull of family entertainment value, just like a good state fair should be.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.