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Cutesy show isn't theater's finest moment

Cutesy show isn't theater's finest moment

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A lot of musicals include novelty numbers, usually to show off a particular performer or to offer a little counterpoint to the main plot.

But because the insipid "State Fair" story line emerges from a predictable script, the novelties turn into highlights in the show, which closes the Stages St. Louis season.

One of those novelty numbers, "More Than Just a Friend," is simply unforgettable. Four farmers (Christopher Vettel, John Flack, Joseph Torello and Mike Dowdy) at the 1946 Iowa State Fair meld their voices in a splendid love song to … hogs.

"Sooey, sooey, soo," they sing in a tender harmony straight from the heart. You have never heard anything like it.

Vettel stars as Abel Frake, counting on his magnificent boar (imaginatively played by somebody's hooves … um, feet) to win a blue ribbon. His wife, Melissa (Kari Ely), has similar high hopes for her mincemeat, a dish that inspires one of the condiments judges (Whit Reichert) to overindulge.

That leads to a pull-out-the-stops drunk act that is itself a kind of novelty performance, like shots of a cute dog reacting to the actors in a movie. But he certainly livens thing up.

The Frakes' young-adult children, Margy (Julie Hanson) and Wayne (Preston Ellis), come to the fair looking for, and finding, romance; she with a reporter (Jim Newman), and he with one of the entertainers (Hollie Howard).

But the best "romantic" number is another novelty, a jitterbug that Wayne dances with a little girl (adorable Abigail Isom) who has a crush on him. Spirited and appropriate to the show's postwar era, it's a treat to see.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II made an incomparable team, but "State Fair" doesn't reveal them at their best.

"All I Owe Ioway" is a watered-down version of their great title song "Oklahoma!" The show's memorable numbers — "It Might As Well Be Spring," "That's for Me," "It's a Grand Night for Singing" — are outnumbered by pro-forma songs that anybody might have written, a sad contrast to the wonderful cavalcade in, for example, "South Pacific."

But the songs do allow choreographer Dana Lewis to deliver strong work, particularly from jazzy Newman and sultry Howard, who looks utterly out of place in front of a bandstand straight out of a far better Iowa show, "The Music Man." Of course, she would be.

Director Michael Hamilton has cast "State Fair" well, with many familiar Stages performers. It's a cute enough way to close the season.

But after the glorious production of "Big River" and the sophisticated "Promises, Promises," the audience may expect more than that.

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