Toby's `State Fair' served with relish, energy, not nuance

July 08, 1999|By Nelson Pressley | Nelson Pressley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Corn is the main dish at Toby's Dinner Theatre, where Rodgers and Hammerstein's "State Fair" is being served with relish. (Goodness, the corn is catching.)

This is an extremely good-natured musical in which the only remotely shady figures (a carnival huckster and a comically cynical farmer) are bit players. The real drama -- hold on to your hats -- is whether the Frake family pig will win a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair, whether Mrs. Frake's mincemeat will impress the culinary judges and whether the Frake kids (Margy and Wayne) will get their hearts broken by city slickers.

"State Fair" was first a novel, then a 1933 Will Rogers movie, then a 1945 film featuring three songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the only film score they wrote specifically for the screen. A few years ago, Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli put together a book and pulled some Rodgers and Hammerstein songs out of the trunk, turning "State Fair" into a "new" Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

The resulting show doesn't exactly add to the formidable legend of America's premiere musical theater writers. But on its own amiable terms, "State Fair" is a pleasant diversion thanks to Richard Rodgers' easygoing, upbeat melodies and Oscar Hammerstein II's efficient lyrics.

The house style at Toby's emphasizes energy over nuance, which means that the big numbers come off better than the reflective songs and the gently comic dialogue. Director Toby Orenstein's actors lean on punch lines the way cabdrivers lean on the horn in traffic, and that tendency to push the material crops up more often than it should.

So does the tendency to over-sing. The show is heavily miked, so the performers don't need to sing at top volume all the time. But some of them do, belting tender moments, as in the romantic ballad "So Far"; compromising the elegance of the lilting choral waltz "A Grand Night for Singing"; and singing a charmingly kooky barbershop quartet, "More Than Just a Friend," a romantic ballad about hogs, with brawny energy that takes all the grace out of the supple harmonies.

The production doesn't always overwhelm the show's simple charm. A. K. Brink makes a snappy, winning Margy, giving a lovely, thoughtful rendition of the wistful "It Might as Well Be Spring." And Orenstein's cast begins to act like real characters (rather than hammy stick figures) as the romances get complicated in the second act.

The up-tempo stuff is pretty reliable here, especially when Teri Rohan is on stage. Rohan plays Emily Arden, a savvy singer-dancer who has a fling with R. Scott Thompson's naive but likable Wayne. Emily performs a couple of sophisticated romantic numbers at the fair -- "You Never Had It So Good" and "That's the Way It Happens," both of which give music director Douglas Lawler's small hidden orchestra a welcome chance to swing. Rohan proves to be a fluid, polished dancer as she glides through Ilona Kessell's choreography, which is reminiscent of 1940s Hollywood.

As Pat Gilbert, the journalist who falls for Margy, Gary Marshall Dieter does well with Kessell's Fred Astaire-inspired choreography in "The Man I Used to Be," and the entire cast looks good during the rousing "All I Owe Ioway." If the show's subtler aspects were handled as capably, this "State Fair" would indeed be a winner.

Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, presents evening and matinee performances of "State Fair" through Aug. 29. Doors open at 6 p.m. for evening shows (5 p.m. on Sundays) and 10: 30 a.m. for matinees (Wednesdays and Sundays). Information and reservations: 410-995-1969, 410-730-8311 or 301-596-6161.

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