State Fair doesn’t even come close to the dazzling, deft act of merging entertainment, sociopolitical messages and psychological depth of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s five major musicals — Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. Or even the ambition of their lesser-known works, such as Allegro.
But considering it was made for film — the only R&H musical written directly for film, the original one in 1945 — maybe it wasn’t supposed to. The movie was remade in 1962, and eventually converted to a stage musical.
It made it to Broadway just over 50 years after the first film, in 1996. The musical has a book by Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli, based on Hammerstein’s screenplay and the novel by Phil Strong.
It still has some terrific songs — many of them castoffs from their other musicals — and can be a lot of fun. A production by Stolen Shakespeare Guild, directed by Lauren and Jason Morgan with choreography by Karen Matheny, has big, well-done ensemble moments and some standout voices, but it’s hard to make the story of an Iowa pig farmer and his children’s romantic adventures exciting.
The Morgans scored with John Wilkerson, who has numerous Broadway and regional musical theater credits, and was in the original Broadway production of State Fair and the first tour. He also had an ill-fated theater outfit in Grapevine upon his return to North Texas in the early 2000s, whose only production was an expensive State Fair.
He’s the farmer, Abel, who takes wife Melissa (Jenny Tucker) and kids Margy (Jessica Taylor) and Wayne (Branden Loera) to the fair, where he hopes his boar takes the blue ribbon.
Margy has a boyfriend and Wayne a girlfriend, but both find new loves at the fair: for Margy, budding journalist Pat Gilbert (Shafer Bennett Wilkerson), and for Wayne, actress/dancer Emily (Alexandra Cassens).
The choral work in the ensemble is outstanding, especially on the first-act finale, It’s a Grand Night for Singing, and any time Wilkerson, Martin Antonio Guerra, Jonathan Speegle and Gary Payne quartet.
Wilkerson’s experience shines through and overshadows most of his castmates. His gifts were obviously passed on to his son Shafer, who displays impressive vocal and dancing skills.
Taylor sings beautifully on It Might as Well Be Spring and succeeds as the heart of this story. Cassens is a spitfire of an entertainer. The numbers with her fellow showgirls, the Fairtones (Nicole Carrano, Emmie Kivell, Angela Germany, Samantha Snow), are memorable.
Other performers aren’t as successful, all faked laughter and expressionless faces. They look good in Lauren Morgan’s costumes and among the set pieces (designed by the Morgans) that are unobtrusively moved on casters. It’s remarkable how they fill the small Sanders Theatre with this set and large ensemble numbers without it being cumbersome.
The downfall remains Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s decision not to have live musicians and instead use recorded tracks. Granted, a piano combo would be hard to wedge into the space, not to mention add to the budget. But the piped-in music sounds, to paraphrase another R&H lyric, as corny as Iowa in July.