The SCERA Shell Outdoor Theatre is a fine venue for a slice of Americana like “State Fair,” playing there through Monday.
For if there is anything more American than the show itself — Rodgers and Hammerstein’s movie-turned-into-a-play about the 1946 Iowa State Fair — it’s bringing the family out for a picnic in the park, followed by a pleasant stage performance.
Our heroes are the Frakes, a farming family whose every summer revolves around the fair. Father Abel (K.C. Shaw) is entering his prize hog, while his wife, Melissa (Linda Williams-Van Orman), has her famous pickles and mincemeat. Their kids, Wayne (Seth Nelson Child) and Margy (Sofia Lee), each have beaus, but both find new loves at the fair (you can imagine that a state fair would be a breeding ground for young romance). Wayne meets a pretty singer named Emily (Erika Frischknecht), while Margy meets a bland journalist named Pat (Bryan Harper).
There is romance, betrayal, suspense and high drama as things unfold. Director Jerry Elison admits in the program notes that the show is “corny,” and while acknowledging a show’s shortcomings doesn’t necessarily make them OK, the corniness happens to work for this show. Perhaps you think you couldn’t possibly care less about what happens to a bunch of farmers at the state fair, but somehow, in the course of the show, you find that you actually do care about these folks.
There are some good dance numbers, choreographed by Mary Linda Thomas, and danced by a large, energetic cast. Mark Pulham gets the biggest laughs of the show as a food judge who gets drunk off Mrs. Frake’s brandy-laced mincemeat.
Among the major characters, Frischknecht gives a very polished performance as Emily, supported by her enthusiastic co-stars. Shaw and Williams-Van Orman are the foundation, though, as Mr. and Mrs. Frake — Mr. and Mrs. America, really. They have a cute charm that is unmistakable, particularly in their songs together (“When I Go out Walking with My Baby” and “Boys and Girls Like You and Me”).
It would impossible to dislike this show. This being community theater, some performances are uneven, and some are downright bad. But there’s a zeal that is plain to see, and the show itself is so unashamedly joyful and old-fashioned, one can’t help but smile at it.
A few days before I was to see this show, two of its representatives called my editor at the Daily Herald and requested a meeting with her. At this meeting, they explained the reasons why they didn't want me reviewing any of the shows at the SCERA this year.
Those reasons, as they were explained to me, basically boiled down to this: Sometimes I give negative reviews. My editor reminded them, however, that a vast majority of the reviews I write are positive, and that if I don't see their shows, she will, and she's meaner than I am (she wasn't kidding, either). They were eventually pacified.
This show marked the return of Happy Guy, previously seen in "Guys and Dolls." This is a guy in the chorus, with only a tiny speaking role, who is clearly the happiest man who ever lived. His grin is permanently on his face, and he dances with far more enthusiasm than any human should. We found ourselves laughing very hard at him, and also being annoyed by him. Ultimately, though, we loved him. And hated him. It's hard to explain.