State Fair,book by Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli based on the screenplay by Oscar Hammerstein II and the book by Phil Strong, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Richard Rodgers. Directed by Mike Crum.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"You can never find the man you used to be."
John Saunders and Monica M. Wemitt; photo provided
An old novel that had been made into a Will Rogers motion picture fell into the hands of Oscar Hammerstein II, not long after his new musical with Richard Rodgers, "Oklahoma!" - their first since college - had opened on Broadway. Darrell Zanuck wanted a musical version of the 20th Century Fox film and he thought that Rodgers and Hammerstein were the perfect team to supply the songs. Oscar liked the idea and convinced Dick to do the work; they wrote it in New York because it felt more right, more Broadway, to write it that way.
With Jeanne Crain, Dick Haymes, Dana Andrews, Vivian Blaine, Charles Winninger and Fay Bainter the film was a critical hit and the score a doozy with its fine lineup of R&H hit tunes including "It Might As Well Be Spring," "That’s For Me," "Isn’t It Kinda Fun," "The Man I Used to Be," and the biggest hit of all "It’s a Grand Night for Singing."
Flash fo rward: second version of the film: Pat Boone, Alice Faye, Ann-Margret, Tom Ewell, Bobby Darin, Pamela Tiffin; still a hit but not so much. New songs by Rodgers and Rodgers like "More Than Just a Friend." Move on to the new stage edition with songs from both films and some interpolated songs from other R&H shows and we arrive at the Mac-Haydn now. It was a production of this show at this theater many years ago that forced me to not review things at the Mac. Dancers in pig noses did me in.
So with reluctance I attended the current production only to be surprised and delighted by the show on stage there this time around. It’s a good piece of theater suddenly. I know I have changed, but so has this piece; for one thing no pig noses. And the choreography by Andy Geary is very good indeed. So is the overall direction by Mike Crum. He is fortunate, of course, to have a wonderful cast for the show.
Abel and Melissa Frake, Papa and Mama, are played by John Saunders and Monica M. Wemitt. They make a darling team; of course they know one another well and so their on-stage chemistry is a part of that long-term friendship but the warmth is so genuine that they can dance coyly and still have it be sweet, they can duet with arched eyebrows and a cozy distance and still come across as long-time lovers. They personally account for at least half of the evening’s charm and yet they are not the leading players.
That set of honors belongs to Leanne Smith as Margy Frake and Robert Teasdale as Pat Gilbert, the newspaperman she falls in love with at the State Fair. He is very good, but not yet great. He looks wonderful, sings and acts pleasantly and dances all right. She is certainly pretty, acts with a certain charm, sings lightly and dances all right as well. Except for the excessive use of pink in her costumes and the slightly elevated period jackets and ties that he wears they make pretty pictures together.
Margy’s brother Wayne is played by Barrett Harper with open-faced wonder and the girl of his choice, Emily Arden, is played bounteously by Kelsey Stalter. Part seductress, part virgin, part jazz singer, part modern dancer, Stalter’s Emily is the center of the show and everything seems to revolve around her. When Harper dances with her he becomes a transformed being. It was a delight to watch them together and their night picnic scene in Act Two is a remarkably moving collection of revelations.
Among the large and excellent ensemble are a few stand-outs. Carol Charniga as Mrs. Edwin Metcalf turns in a great character performance and her ensemble singing was with the best voice in the building. Monk Shane-Lydon makes his many different character appearances into a non-stop segue from one polar opposite to another. Heather Siemienas is an excellent lady judge and Gabe Belyeu strikes gold as Judge Heppenstahl.
Jimm Halliday’s costumes are basically just what the production calls for, but Margy could have been handled with a touch less pink. Laura Brignull’s sets were useful and non-intrusive and Kevin Gleason’s lighting was as good as lighting gets in this theater. The small band played well.
A production I didn’t hate of a show I dreaded seeing is almost enough of a reason to mark this one down as a positive experience. The Mac-Haydn went a bit further, though, making me enjoy what I was watching and that deserves the kind of applause or hand-shake that can only be made in words: This show is so worth the visit to the Mac-Haydn Theatre. Don’t hesitate.
Robert Teasdale and Leanne Smith; photo provided
Heather Siemienas, Gabe Belyeu, Monk Shane-Lydon; photo provided
State Fair plays at the Mac-Haydn at 1925 State Route 203 in Chatham, New York through September 2. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292 or go to their website at www.machaydntheatre.org.