First Nighter: Rodgers & Hammerstein's Stage Fair Much More than Merely Fair

09/14/2010 11:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Show-biz legends Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote nine Broadway musicals. Or at least nine musicals are usually attributed to them -- Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I being the most acclaimed; The Sound of Music perhaps the most universally known; and Allegro, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream and Flower Drum Song acknowledged as their lesser achievements.

There is a tenth Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, however, State Fair. Not that Dick or Oscar knew about it. State Fair was adapted to the stage from the movie musicals, which were adapted from Phil Strong's 1932 novel.

The live-and-in-person treatment was introduced to the world in 1995, during the period when seemingly every movie ever had become grist for stage transfer. The folks at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization figured that State Fair was a natural because it had the marvelous five-song score, including the 1945 Oscar-winning song, "It Might as Well Be Spring" and the glorious "It's a Grand Night for Singing." It was a box-office winner three times over -- with and without songs.

As it happens, the Rodgers and Hammerstein deciders were right. It's a natural, although it might have been difficult to tell in 1996, when the tweaked opus bowed on Broadway. This, after a tour marked by a certain amount of pussy-footing over whether to bring a work to Manhattan that reveled in what was considered corn as high as an elephant's eye.

And don't you know, for the most part the critics weren't receptive to -- get this! -- David Merrick's final production. Nay-sayers saw State Fair as the aw-shucks paean some assumed it would be. They saw wrong. The real problem with State Fair wasn't that the material was dated or saccharine -- or any other pejorative -- that could be flipped at it like a cow pie.

The real problem with State Fair -- in which the home-spun Frake family spends three days at the Iowa State Fair winning prizes for mincemeat and a pig -- is that it was miscast in its four focal roles. As patriarch Abel Frake, John Davidson relentlessly pressed the hokum button for two full acts. As mother Melissa Frake, Kathryn Crosby smiled unrelievedly, the victim of one too many ossifying cosmetic-surgery passes. As moony daughter Margy, Andrea McArdle was too urbane and probably should have played the wised-up Emily Arden role that Donna McKechnie, just past her shelf-life for the part, assumed.

When the wrong actors are tackling any material, the material takes a beating, and that's what transpired with State Fair. No one could see the forest for the treason. And the result has been that the tuner is largely forgotten. It has become something for which the label "underrated" only begins to describe its sorry fate.

Until now. You see, London's enterprising fringe theater, the Finborough, decided to give State Fair a ferris-wheel spin for most of August 2009, and the handiwork, supervised by canny director Thom Southerland, was so well-received that the company sent it to the West End's Trafalgar Studios this summer.

In that space, where the orchestra consisted of one upstage piano, State Fair proved to be funny, melodious, rousing entertainment. Is it corny -- which perhaps a show about farmers has a right to be? (Hollywood obviously wanted something Oklahoma!-ish from Rodgers and Hammerstein.) It all depends on how "corny" is defined. Yes, Abel and Melissa Frake, after many years married and raising kids are still in love and suffer no metropolitan neuroses. Frake siblings Margy and Wayne are initially confused by city slickers Pat Gilbert and Pat Wayne, but eventually adjust.

But wait a second. Hammerstein -- and adapters Louis Mattioli and Tom Briggs -- weren't just shucking corn. They were pickling it with as much savvy as Melissa Frake pickles her cucumbers. They were having their send-up of corn. You don't dispatch a barker across the stage announcing that "Due to a refrigeration break-down, there will be no 'Last Supper' butter sculpture" without knowing exactly what you're about. And the song-enhanced State Fair is full of similar zingers that actors the caliber of those Southerland has assembled can merrily apply like blue ribbons.

No one will convince me that Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't want the thrilling "It's a Grand Night for Singing" sung live from the stage. Finally, it can be heard in context, rather than just as a concert number. The stage State Fair is a grand night for singing. Here's hoping many more lucky audiences get to experience it.