The corn is as high as an Iowan's eye

January 06, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Transferring "State Fair," Rodgers and Hammerstein's only original movie musical, to the stage is a little like trying to make a silk musical out of a sow's ear.

If you doubt it, consider watching John Davidson sing a love song -- "More Than Just a Friend" -- to his prize pig, Blue Boy. (No, Blue Boy doesn't sing back; the pig isn't even on stage.)

Granted, working from Oscar Hammerstein II's screenplay for the 1945 film, based, in turn, on a novel by Phil Strong, script writers Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli probably have come as close to silk as possible with this show about the adventures of an Iowa farm family at the annual state fair.

The mildly pleasing result should have a long life in dinner theaters and schools. But any musical that includes the lyric, "I am Ioway born and bred, and on Ioway corn I'm fed," may seem too, well, corny under the bright lights of Broadway, where the producers hope to take this star-studded show in March.

The scriptwriters' admirable work includes not only rearranging some of the half-dozen songs from the 1945 movie, but augmenting them with one song from the 1962 remake, as well as five from Rodgers and Hammerstein's lesser-known musicals and two that were cut from "Oklahoma!"

Although written for other shows, some of these added songs help flesh out "State Fair's" characters. The movie had only one genuine character-developing number -- "It Might As Well Be Spring." And, as sung here by Andrea McArdle, this Academy Award-winning song continues to demonstrate that the farm family's daughter, Margy Frake, feels so out of sorts, it's as if she has spring fever in August.

Of the new songs, the best example of character development comes when Scott Wise -- as Margy's love interest, Pat Gilbert, a reporter she meets at the fair -- sings "The Man I Used To Be" from the musical "Pipe Dream." The song exudes the character's requisite sophistication as well as giving debonair Wise a chance to display some of the production's slickest dancing. Still, the choreography, by Randy Skinner, is largely uninspired, a fault also apparent in the direction, by Skinner and James Hammerstein (Oscar's son), and in designer James Leonard Joy's colorful but old-fashioned sets.

Margy and Pat are one of several pairs of lovebirds in "State Fair." Margy's brother (Ben Wright) falls for a chanteuse, played by Donna McKechnie, with a heart of slightly tarnished gold. The Frake parents (strutting Davidson and pretty but thin-voiced Kathryn Crosby) remain lovely-dovey in middle age, as they indicate in the two trunk songs from "Oklahoma!" And let's not forget Blue Boy, the prize pig. He's hog-wild for an off-stage sow named Esmerelda.

If the drama surrounding these romances doesn't keep you on the edge of your seat, there's the cliff-hanging suspense over whether Blue Boy will win a blue ribbon or Ma Frake's mincemeat will appeal to the judges.

McArdle, McKechnie and Wise try mightily to add some edge to these squeaky-clean proceedings. But despite their efforts, the improved book and augmented score, this show remains the most featherweight work created by the team who revolutionized musical theater two years earlier with "Oklahoma!" and followed "State Fair" with their darkest musical, "Carousel."

'State Fair'

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Jan. 28

Tickets: $40-$60

Call: (800) 444-1324

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