“Our state fair is a great state fair, don’t miss it, don’t even be late”
Originally produced at the Finborough last summer in what was incredibly its UK stage premiere, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s State Fair makes a transfer to the small basement theatre of Trafalgar Studios. Partly recast and given a design refresh, it extended its run by a couple of weeks due to demand, meaning I finally got round to seeing it, having been on holiday for most of its run, both this year and last.
In the grand scheme of things, State Fair is a fairly simple play, it revolves around the Frakes, a rural farming family who journey to the three day Iowa State Fair to compete with their livestock and their condiments, and have a little fun too. It started life as a film with five Rodgers & Hammerstein songs in it, ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’ won them their only Oscar, but as it was developed into a musical in the late 90s, the score was substantially beefed up by the incorporation of a number of songs most of which had been cut from other R&H shows such as Oklahoma! and Pipe Dream.
On paper one might question how good this could be, prizewinning pigs and homemade mincemeat are hardly the stuff one imagines a musical could revolve around, but director Thom Southerland performs real alchemy here in bringing together so many elements in absolute perfect harmony, that it is just a sheer delight and constantly laugh-out-loud funny to boot.
Much credit has to go to (the frankly gorgeous) musical director Magnus Gilljam, who accompanies the actors throughout solely on piano and does wonders. The balance is just right, he doodles incidental music to many a scene without overpowering dialogue (something very few shows get right), he provides sound effects and the arrangements for the songs are just brilliant. There’s something fittingly traditional about a solo piano accompanying such a show, but make no mistake, this is as high quality and professional as it gets.
Another area where it excels is in its use of choreography. Despite the extremely limited space available, Sally Brooks has come up with a set of routines completely in tune with the show: a hoe-down tap dancing numbers which I loved, a burlesque-esque routine for ‘That’s the Way it Happens’ performed well by Jodie Jacobs and one of the highlights of the show, a full-cast huge ensemble number for ‘All I Owe Ioway’ which is just breath-takingly good.
Everyone in the ensemble does so well here but as ever, certain moments shine through: Laura Main’s rendition of ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’ (the Oscar winner) is quietly stunning and her acting throughout was nicely measured without being twee; Philip Rham’s Abel was constantly strong; Anthony Wise’s drunk acting as the show judge was possibly one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year and the way in which he adlibbed as a girl and her father first left to go to the toilet and then returned was just an absolute joy and I also loved Jodie Jacob’s aforementioned showgirl who had a touching chemistry with Karl Clarkson’s slightly dopey but totally lovable Wayne.
Given its origins in being two thirds a collection of rejected songs from other musicals, it is remarkable how well this show hangs together and just how darn good it is. It is packed full of good clean fun, there’s so many funny lines in here (including a fair few ones which the smuttier minded among us just lost it to!) a winning set of performances, tap-dancing and a full cast musical number that just bursts off the stage: sheer heaven. For me, it honestly is as good as small-scale musicals get. If you’ve not been already, you have one week left to go, do not delay!