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Produced by Washington Stage Guild at Carroll Hall to February 4

State Fair

Music by Richard Rodgers

Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Book by Tom Briggs and

Louis Mattioli

Directed by James Hammerstein and Randy Skinner

At the Kennedy Center Opera House to January 28

During all of the first two acts and a goodly portion of the third, patrons at Washington Stage Guild (WSG)’s revival of The Cocktail Party are apt to be wondering why T.S. Eliot’s elliptical drama isn’t produced more often. The answer, when it finally comes, has to do with lyrically heightened expectations being hard to live up to.

Eliot was a mystic as well as a poet, and he fashioned The Cocktail Party as a decidedly ethereal gathering, with the partygoers including a mysterious Unidentified Guest and a couple of quasi-scrutable chatterboxes who circle the main characters like spiritual vultures. Lavinia Chamberlayne (Helen Hedman) has just left her husband as the lights come up, without remembering to cancel the party. Her husband Edward (Conrad Feininger) is as annoyed as he is depressed, since not only is his mistress Celia (Amy Larion) in attendance, barely able to contain her elation at the breakup of his marriage, but Celia’s unsuspecting suitor, Peter (Daniel Luna), has asked Edward to intercede with her on his behalf.

All of these rootless folks claim to be having nervous breakdowns, so in the second act, the playwright sends them to a psychiatrist who turns out to be the party’s Unidentified Guest (Bill Largess). His analytical method owes much to Catholic ritual, in part because Eliot regarded psychiatrists as father confessors for those who have no religion, and in part because the play’s concerns are resolutely spiritual. Soon the patients are being reconciled to their lives, or sent off to higher destinies, and the playwright is waxing mystical. In Act 3, alas, he comes back down to earth with a thud by actually articulating his theme, which comes out as a flatly disappointing, decidedly unpoetic, “every moment is a new beginning…and life goes on.”

At the play’s Broadway opening in 1950, a befuddled Brooks Atkinson wrote for the New York Times that “Mr. Eliot’s thoughts and religious faith are no doubt all there for theatergoers who are in tune with his metrical abstractions.” But he went on to say he didn’t personally understand the play, and suggested turning to the script, “since it is too compact and too allusive to be assimilated from the stage.”

Sounds like a Woolly Mammoth play, doesn’t it? Well, that thought occurred to the folks at Washington Stage Guild, who asked Woollies Lee Mikeska Gardner and Howard Shalwitz to shepherd the production for them, Gardner serving as director, Shalwitz as consultant. Having worked together on the Woolly Mammoth smash Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) and a variety of other eccentric evenings, they bring a nicely subversive sensibility to WSG. And what they seem to have discovered is that—Atkinson notwithstanding—the play is every bit as clear and direct on stage as on the page. Maybe more so, since its loose, unrhymed iambic pentameter looks plenty daunting in print, yet sounds when spoken like casual conversation.

The evening’s design is as spare and economical as Eliot’s language, and Gardner’s staging keeps the evening moving blithely along, while still allowing the characters to make an impact. Hedman and Feininger are fine as the central couple, especially during the scenes in which they’re being stripped of their illusions. Larion and Luna also manage some evocative moments when the chips are down, while June Hansen and Morgan Duncan are clearly enjoying the assignment of chirping madly away on the sidelines. Largess isn’t the sort of actor who suggests great spiritual depths, but he’s enigmatic enough as the psychiatrist to get by.

What none of them can do is keep the playwright’s third act from being a letdown, but frankly, for those interested in seeing an Eliot work (besides Cats) on stage, there’s enough intrigue in the evening’s first two-thirds that that won’t matter much.

The KenCen’s State Fair ain’t a great State Fair, as Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics would have it, but it’s a good deal better than you might expect. It could be better still, if everyone would relax and stop trying to make it this year’s Crazy for You.

State Fair’s corny-as-grits book and lush-as-molasses melodies don’t call for—in fact, can’t support—the kind of high-energy performance they’re getting at the Opera House. The show is, after all, about cupidity, pigs, and pickles. Charm is what’s required, but between the knee-slapping and the hard-edged soft-shoeing, charm is getting overwhelmed by exertion.

It’s easy to understand why. Both Hammerstein and composer Richard Rodgers passed away years ago, and the musical-play style they pioneered has long since given way to flashier, more integrated forms. Dinner theaters and high schools still do the R&H canon, but the audience that can sing along is aging. Not for nothing is State Fair being touted as a “new” Rodgers and Hammerstein stage show, based on its having originally been crafted for the screen. “New,” hope the producers, as they use it in tandem with “all-American,” will connote brasher, brighter, sassier.

To the extent that the show is any of those things—and the book does manage them all to one degree or another—State Fair qualifies as a decidedly unorthodox Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. That’s because, in their attempt to freshen up the team’s Sound of South Pacific and I aesthetic, the producers have paradoxically stumbled on an even older model. This chip off the old R&H blockbusters is a throwback to the sort of “clothesline” show over which R&H’s musical plays marked an advance.

In a clothesline show—Crazy for You being a recent example—pop songs and jokes are strung almost arbitrarily on a plot line so thin it’s all but invisible. The Gershwin brothers excelled in the form back in the 1930s, as did Rodgers when he was teamed with lyricist Lorenz Hart. Rodgers and Hammerstein altered the formula in the ’40s by requiring that songs, and even dances, spring from character and serve the plot rather than just hang on it. Their work consequently struck audiences as grounded and substantial even when, as in Oklahoma!, the plot hinges on nothing more pressing than who gets to take the ingénue to a dance.

State Fair is a little more complicated than that. It concerns Pa (John Davidson) and his prize-winning pig, Ma (Kathryn Crosby) and her pickles and spiked mincemeat, and a $5 bet on whether their trip to the 1946 State Fair will be blissful or merely pleasant. There’s also a pair of romances: one between an innocent farm boy (Ben Wright) and a comparatively sophisticated chorine (Donna McKechnie), the other between the boy’s innocent sister (Andrea McArdle) and a comparatively sophisticated reporter (Scott Wise).

As a movie, State Fair got by with only six songs (including the hits “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” and “It Might as Well Be Spring”), so the score clearly needed supplementing for the stage. Director James (son of Oscar) Hammerstein and writers Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli dipped into the R&H trunk and came up with a few ditties that had been cut from Oklahoma! and Me and Juliet during tryouts, appropriated a few more from R&H’s lesser-known Allegro and Pipe Dream, and eventually came up with the 14 numbers they needed for a full evening. Then they hung them, along with new and recycled jokes, on their clothesline.

The result is a perfectly pleasant show, but not a particularly cohesive one. The new songs seem just as arbitrary in their new contexts as you’d expect, the old ones get pushed harder than they should be (“It’s a Grand Night for Singing” underscores practically every set change), and while the central romances are played straight, the subsidiary characters mug and whoop as if they’d just popped in from vaudeville. Davidson’s gestures are broad enough that he might as well be guiding planes to their berths at Dulles.

The production complicates things unnecessarily by casting each pair of lovers with one singer and one dancer, thereby hobbling all their duets. As the guileless siblings who find love on the midway, Wright and McArdle have such lovely pipes you can’t help wishing they’d croon in tandem, but the material won’t let them. Meanwhile, as their more worldly partners, McKechnie (A Chorus Line’s original Cassie) and Wise (the most athletic Broadway dancer of the ’80s and ’90s), can each get through a song vocally, but they’re much stronger when in motion. Paired, they’d doubtless be explosive, but they never even get to hold hands.

Actually, co-director/choreographer Randy Skinner doesn’t do them any favors even when they’re dancing solo, giving them tricky, complicated steps when their real strengths are the kinds of leaps and extensions most terpsichoreans have trouble managing. McKechnie had the same problem when she danced Bob Fosse’s choppy, angular choreography a few years ago in Sweet Charity. She’s a glider who, for some reason, is never given a chance to glide any more. Similarly, Wise has to negotiate so many fussy little turns and cross-steps that he ends up looking like he’s working hard on numbers that are meant to seem effortless. In one Fred and Gingerish routine, McArdle actually seems more comfortable and relaxed than he does.

Still, at least the principals don’t have to fight the garish, unflattering costumes most of the cast is stuck in. Designers Michael Bottari and Ronald Case either think Iowans circa 1946 all wore patch pockets and mismatched sleeves, or they tossed a vintage Sears catalogue into a shredder and liked the results. Their work isn’t just ugly, it’s actively distracting, especially with James Leonard Joy’s delicate trees and snazzy carnival booths heading off in another direction entirely.

That State Fair still works reasonably well with all these drawbacks should suggest how strong the score is. Rodgers and Hammerstein had no equals when it came to a certain kind of supremely melodic, plot-based songwriting. For those who’ve gotten used to the wan little melody or two that Andrew Lloyd Webber endlessly recycles in each of his shows, R&H’s profligacy will seem downright bracing. All that really needs to happen now is for the production to tone itself down. Let the audience come to the music rather than pushing it so damn hard, and Broadway’s blue ribbon just might be within reach.CP