STAGE REVIEW : 'State Fair' a By-the-Numbers Resurrection : The 'new' musical, based on the 1945 film, packages familiar and unfamiliar Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes in an old-fashioned, predictable patchwork.

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The theater is going to the pigs.

At least it is in Long Beach, where a musical based on a 1945 musical film, based on a 1933 non-musical film, based on a 1932 novel by Phil Stong, is trying to pass for "new."

The Long Beach Civic Light Opera's presentation of "State Fair," which originated at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem and opened Wednesday at the Terrace Theater, has some discarded, some seldom heard and some older material by that grand musical team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. But these guys haven't been around lately. And this patchwork of old and recycled, familiar and unfamiliar songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein has been horse-whipped into the most self-deluded, bubble-headed, by-the-numbers, old-fashioned "new" musical, since a similar act of transgression was perpetrated on that other movie musical: "Meet Me in St. Louis."

It is not as though anything but the best intentions had gone into the shaping of this piece. The time is 1946 and the uneventful plot, dedicated to ensuring that everyone will live happily ever after, takes us to the Iowa State Fair with the Frake family. Papa Abel (Lenny Wolpe) is entering his prize hog, and his wife Melissa (Jan Pessano) her sour pickles and mince-meat. Guess who wins? But it's their children who walk off with the biggest prize: Maturity.

Son Wayne (Lewis Cleale) gets his head turned by a fiery nightclub singer named Emily (Lisa Akey) and is chastened into returning to his girl-next-door for true love (an unlikely story).

Daughter Margy (Susan Egan) discovers she'd rather take her chances with a raffish newspaper reporter named Pat Gilbert (Michael Halpin) than marry sweet, boring farmer-next-door Harry (a game Philip Lehl).

Bookwriters Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli have tinkered with but haven't improved a plot that no one ever claimed to be electrifying.

They've kept the 1945 film's six songs (including, of course, "It Might As Well Be Spring" and "It's a Grand Night for Singing," but also, alas, "Our State Fair") and they've added eight more from the lesser-known or sensibly discarded Rodgers and Hammerstein repertoire. Yet despite the involvement of James Hammerstein, the lyricist's son (who had attempted a poorly received similar transplantation of "State Fair" in 1962), the effort is a sappy, second-rate extension of a style of musical that went out with World War II.

The effort is ill-conceived and out of touch, and not to be blamed on Rodgers and Hammerstein. Even if this "State Fair" doesn't strut their best stuff, there's fun in "More Than Just a Friend," that love-song to a hog, and rue in "The Man I Used to Be" (both from the 1962 remake); and there's a gentle kinda banter in "Isn't It Kinda Fun?"

So why aren't we having any?

The so-called big numbers are "All I Owe Ioway" (from the 1945 film) and "That's the Way It Happens" (retrieved from "Me and Juliet"). Aside from being unimaginatively staged, one per act is too few. The end of Act II begs for a reprise of "Ioway" that never comes. Setting aside the song's natural expansiveness, it's a shoo-in with the many ex-Hawkeyes reportedly living in Long Beach.

But Randy Skinner doesn't think on his feet. He has staged and choreographed the show with so little deviation from 1940s cute-and-predictable that it feels preserved in formaldehyde. He has dragged nostalgia in by the hair and willed it onto every derivative inflection, programmatic gesture or unadventurous dance step.

Add to this a journeyman cast that, with the exception of the lively Wolpe as Abel and Egan as an intelligent Margy, moves as mechanically as the plot. It is exemplified by Lisa Akey's cool detachment as the supposedly hot-blooded Emily and Halpin's doggedly uncharismatic newsman. Cleale has the voice for Wayne, but forces the character's youth and inexperience. In short, there's not an authentic impulse to be found.

The big question is why ? Why foist this transmuted, stultified "State Fair," plagued with a tinny sound besides, on the public now? Nostalgia's a faded excuse and was never a good one. Any invocations of the popularity of retro-constituted musicals, such as "Crazy for You," discounts the crucial role talent plays in such ventures.

Credit must duly be given to James Leonard Joy for his old-fashioned painted drop sets that do know how to invoke period without being cloying, and to the aptness of Michael Bottari and Ronald Case's costumes. Credit also the Long Beach CLO for coming up with the idea of a midway outside the theater (weekends only) as a way to set mood and raise funds.

If "State Fair" the musical had shown half as much enterprise or spirit, it might have had something.

"State Fair," Terrace Theater, Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. (Carnival "Midway" Fridays-Sundays, one hour before the show.) Ends Oct. 18. $12-$34. (310) 432-7926, (714) 826-9371. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Lenny Wolpe: Abel Frake

Jan Pessano: Melissa Frake

Lewis Cleale: Wayne Frake

Susan Egan: Margy Frake

Lisa Akey: Emily Arden

Michael Halpin: Pat Gilbert

Karen Lifshey: Eleanor

Charles Goff: Dave Miller/Judge Heppenstahl

Robert Loftin: Charlie

Tom Hafner: Lem/The Astounding Stralenko

Edward Badrak: Clay

Raymond Patterson: Hank Munson

Jacquiline Rohrbacker: Mrs. Metcalf

Brad Moore: Chief of Police

Kara Dennis: Violet

Philip Lehl: Harry

Eric Gunhus: Gus

Tina Johnson, Kelli Barclay Dancers

A "new" musical, based on the 1945 screenplay by Oscar Hammerstein II and the 1932 novel by Phil Stong. Music Richard Rodgers. Lyrics Oscar Hammerstein II. Book Tom Briggs, Louis Mattioli. Producer Barry Brown. Director-choreographer Randy Skinner. Production supervisor James Hammerstein. Sets James Leonard Joy. Lights Natasha Katz. Costumes Michael Bottari, Ronald Case. Sound Jonathan Deans. Orchestrations Bruce Pomahac. Dance arrangements Scot Woolley. Assistant choreographer Debra Ann Draper. Musical director/vocal arrangements John McDaniel. Production manager Don Hill. Production stage manager John M. Galo.

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