State Fair at the Cadogan Hall, London.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
A pre-concert announcement often signals something unfortunate but not in this instance! Conductor Freddie Tapner of the London Musical Theatre Orchestra (making its debut) told us that what we were about to hear was a concert version of the much-loved film State Fair, with the dialogue trimmed back, allowing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music to lead the evening, a realisation that worked very effectively.
The original film of State Fair was released by 20th Century Fox in 1945. It was remade in 1962 and set in Texas, but apart from one song, ‘More Than Just a Friend’, with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers alone, it was the earlier version set at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines that was adhered to.
There was just enough of the book by Tom Briggs and Louis Mattiol (based on the screenplay by Oscar Hammerstein II and the novel by Phil Stong) to indicate that a fine job had been done on the adaptation. The dialogue was crisp, the dramatic moments, such as they were, well placed, and crucially, the songs that were interpolated from other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, some rejects, some more familiar ones, didn’t jar in their new context.
It was of great credit to this cast and the director Thom Southerland that the evening flowed so well. Many of the scenes were quite short, and with little stage left in front of the sizeable orchestra and chorus, neither seemed unfazed by the many comings and goings onstage.
Some early balance problems (the opening exchanges of dialogue were too quiet over the musical underscoring) were sorted early on and from thereon, the evening was little short of a triumph.
Let’s start with the conductor Freddie Tapner who galvanised his orchestra, chorus and sterling cast to give their all to Rodgers’ music with its innate warmth and lyricism.
Bruce Pomahac’s orchestrations glowed in this interpretation and the big band songs, sung and swung by Emma Hatton, with extended instrumental sequences, caught that tradition well. I’m not sure that the R&H score was ‘way ahead of its time’ as Tapner’s welcome suggested, but he was right in that it was groovy and rhythmic.
The plot is essential R&H. Two pairs of lovers, together, parted, reunited, a smattering of comedy over an alcoholic pudding and a prize boar, Blue Boy, with parental advice dosed out in avuncular fashion by Ma and Pa Frake to their children.
The cast members themselves were a joy, consistent in their mid-West tongues, delivering the dialogue like natives, singing with assurance. In short, a true ensemble.
I can praise them no higher than to say that if this evening were to transfer to a West End venue, not a single change need be made. Given their credentials listed in the excellent programme, that might not come as such a surprise, but given this was a one-off occasion, the standard on display and the seemingly innate appreciation of how these songs should be sung, was second to none.
In that respect, Celinde Schoenmaker was special as Margy Frake. Her singing of the lovely ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’ was powerful, yet there was no edge on the voice.
Another familiar ballad, ‘That’s For Me’, seemed a bit low for Oliver Savile, but I liked his portrayal of Margy’s serious brother. Clive Carter and Wendi Peters were warm and homely as the Frake parents, making them entirely believable. The ensemble they led during ‘All I Owe Ioway’ was so infectious, on a par I’d say with the Act I finale, ‘It’s a Grand Night For Singing’.
There is now a substantial gap between what a commercial theatre can afford to spend in terms of the number of musicians and chorus it employs and what the composer originally had in mind. The LMTO plugs that gap admirably. With a 30-plus piece orchestra and a decent size singing ensemble, the world is its oyster, judging from this auspicious debut.