It has been something of a year for long overdue UK premiers of work by classic American authors. The National has had a huge hit with Tennessee Williams’ Spring Storm and now we get a rare premiere of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Their version of State Fair was written for the big screen and it wasn’t until 1995 that the material (with added numbers from the R&H back catalogue) reached the stage in the USA. Now transferring from the Finborough theatre to the only slightly less compact Trafalgar Studio 2, State Fair finally receives its UK stage premiere.
This is by no means one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s strongest scores, but in the intimate space for the Trafalgar Studio 2 it turns out to be a revelation. On a grey and damp August day it manages to lift the spirits and thoroughly entertains. True, with a couple of notable exceptions, you are unlikely to leave humming a clutch of tunes, but connoisseurs can hear echo’s of their more popular hits in the varied score.
In post war Iowa love, pigs and pickles combine as the Frake family descend on the annual State Fair. Like many of their scores, dig beneath the superficial sugar and there is a much more bitter tale being told though.
In an ingenious production, the postage stamp sized stage is given over to a full-on musical experience, with those in the front row in real danger from flying tap shoes in the exuberant chorus numbers. Clever use of minimal props and onstage piano accompaniment from Musical Director Magnus Gilljam complete the illusion of a much larger production. It is also a pleasure to hear a rare, acoustic and unamplified musical.
It is perhaps the cast, under Thom Southerland’s swift direction, that lift the show however. The 14 strong cast bring these slightly absurd characters to vivid life and are obviously enjoying this fun score. Highlights in a strong company include Laura Main’s love torn Margy, Jodie Jacobs as the outwardly vampish singer Emily Arden and Philip Rham as Patriarch and pig lover Abel Frake.
No the score isn’t on a par with their better known hits but this long neglected piece shows that alongside blockbuster musicals, the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate can now add a charming, fun and thoroughly entertaining chamber musical to the cannon. Where else can you hear Rodgers and Hammerstein’s only Oscar winning song alongside a love song to a pig?
Extended by two weeks, State Fair is continuing a welcome return to form of the Trafalgar 2, one of London’s most exciting venues.