A distingushed gentleman with a twinkle in his eye casually asks the charming lady sharing his table for a dance. Soon they are waltzing around the dance floor, oblivious to the other couples gliding around them. No, the dance is not an impromptu one but a carefully rehearsed scene from the musical State Fair, now in preparation for a national tour.
In the musical, the Frake family of Brunswick, Iowa is about to leave for the 1946 State Fair in Des Moines. But in real-life 1997-98, the trip will be a long one as they visit more than 30 cities and towns across America over the next eight months, but "Isn't It Kinda Fun" singing about spring and romance - and hogs?
At the Aug. 20 rehearsal in New York, the cast of the upcoming tour performed "It's A Grand Night For Singing," and Playbill On-Line talked to director Richard Sabellico and star John Davidson.
Filmed twice and previously adapted to the stage, the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musical made its debut on Broadway in spring of 1996, but closed after a disappointing 118-performance run. State Fair tells the story of the Frake family's adventures at the 1946 Iowa State Fair. Davidson reprises the role of farmer Abel Frake, a role he originated on Broadway. Carol Swarbrick will play his wife Melissa.
"We're using the original production as sort of a springboard to bring what I see and also what Michael Lichtefeld, the choreographer, sees to the production," director Sabellico told Playbill On-Line, "It's a little shorter and we've cut down some of the dance numbers." He worked with book writers Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli to make the changes to the show, all of which had to be approved by the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate. "I've built up the romantic relationship between the mother and the father," Sabellico said, "I have people going a lot farther with their emotions than I think they did in the first production." With Davidson as the only star in this production, more emphasis will be placed on the story of his character and his family.
Sets and costume from the original production are being reused with a few additions and adjustments. Character changes include the emphasis on fair headliner Emily Arden (Deborah Foley) being returned to singing, as it was in the film. As well, younger actors (Valerie Accetta and John Simeone) have been cast in the roles of 19-year-old Margy Frake and 21 year old Wayne Frake. Mark Martino will play Pat Gilbert, the reporter Margy meets at the fair.
Completing the cast are Ladd Boris, Greg White, Jim Fitzpatrick, Ray Boling, Scott Kleckner, Shaver Tillitt, J. Douglas Blevins, Mark S. Donato, Bran Pace, Brian Marcum, Hayes Bergamn, Brianne Neal, Ashleigh Davidson, Brandi Ozark, Jennifer Hampton, Jill Gorrie, Lenora Eve, Rachel Cohen, Gina Bon and Larry Munsey.
The rehearsal hall on the edge of the theatre district was lined with equipment bags and water bottles as choreographer Michael Lichtefeld and musical director John Mezzio drilled the cast in "It's a Grand Night For Singing." Dancing couples twirled in circles and were reminded to sharpen certain movements. Minor vocal changes were made and the scene was rehearsed again. At the edge of the hall a costume assistant embellished men's shoes with paint.
While the ensemble continued to rehearse, Davidson told Playbill On-Line, "I think there's a need for a musical like State Fair that you can bring the families to. Everybody loves Kiss of the Spider Woman, Miss Saigon, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk and Rent," but, "Those are adult musicals, there are things in them that are offensive, I think, to some families."
"I think this show has much more appeal to a less urban audience, an audience that's more in touch with the land," Sabellico said, "This is a simple story about simple people. They're not hicks, they are the cream of their society. They have all their needs met, but their needs are simpler. They're more of a throwback to where we came from."
Actors' needs have been very much on the mind of Davidson, who fought to make the show a union one and took a salary cut when disputes began between Actors Equity Association, the actors' union, and the tour's producer, NETworks. "In order to be considered really professional, we want to be union," Davidson said, "It's not the most perfect contract, but it's a start in bringing the non-union shows and making them all Equity."
Carol Swarbrick, who plays Melissa Frake, is one of the Equity Deputies for the State Fair tour. She took a moment to address the recent disputes and criticism the company has taken from other people in the business.
"It is not a B-grade tour. We are an experiment," she said. As a deputy she deals with union related problems and concerns of cast members. "The finances prevent this producer to put this tour out on a production contract," the type of contract Equity tours traditionally go out on, she said, "There are minimums on production contracts that are prohibitive for this guarantee on the road. So what Equity has worked out with the producer is a substantially lower minimum ($200,000) but the protection of the actor is the same as the production contract."
Many of the cast members are on their first Equity contracts, joining the union because of the show, and Swarbrick stressed that, "They were selected for this show because of their talent, not because of their union status." Davidson reminded the cast that this type of contract could result in more jobs for actors and lower ticket prices for audiences.
On a lighter note, Swarbrick told Playbill On-Line, "The show is so positive, and it's so pure, that spending eight months doing this, expressing Americana at its best, is just going to be a delight. And working with John Davidson is a dream come true."
By bringing State Fair to Broadway, Davidson said another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic was created. He said the cast is looking at the tour as a production of a classic, and that, "In many ways it will be just as good, or better," than the Broadway production.
Davidson's 11-year-old daughter Ashleigh is in the cast as Violet, an Iowa child. Though the two don't share stage time her father said, "It's a thrill to see my daughter do this, she wants it very badly. She's a little pro, she loves to sing and dance and act. " Ashleigh quietly amused herself in a corner of the hall as the company rehearsed.
In September of 1998 Davidson will tour and possibly come back to Broadway in Bully, a one man show about Teddy Roosevelt, written by Jerome Alden.
Designing State Fair are Michael Bottari and Ronald Case (costumes), James Leonard Joy (sets), Diane Ferry Williams (lighting) and Scott Armstrong (sound).
Here are the State Fair tour dates:
Sept. 7: Eisenhower Auditorium, University Park, PA
Sept. 11-Sept. 14: Scranton Cultural Center, Scranton, PA
Sept. 16-Sept. 21: Oakdale, Wallingford, CT
Sept. 23-Sept. 27: Fox, Atlanta, GA
Sept. 30-Oct. 2: Ft. Walton, Niceville, FL
Oct. 3-Oct. 5: Times Union Center, Jacksonville, FL
Oct. 7-Oct. 12: Chrysler Hall, Norfolk, VA
Oct. 14-Oct. 19: Jones Hall, Houston, TX
Oct. 21-Oct. 28: Gatlin Brothers Theatre, Myrtle Beach, SC
Oct. 28-Nov. 2: NC PAC, Charlotte, NC
Nov. 4-Nov. 9: Majestic, San Antonio, TX
Nov. 11-Nov. 16: Tennessee PAC, Nashville, TN
Nov. 18-Nov. 23: Saenger, New Orleans
Nov. 26-Nov. 30: Clowes Memorial Hall, Indianapolis, IN
Dec. 2-Dec. 7: Bob Carr PAC, Orlando, FL
Dec. 9-Dec. 14: Jackie Gleason, Miami
Dec. 26-Dec. 28: Philharmonic Center, Naples, FL
Dec. 30-Jan. 4, 1998: Kentucky Center, Louisville, KY
Jan. 6-Jan. 11, 1998: Milwaukee PAC, Milwaukee
Jan. 14-Jan. 18, 1998: McCallum, Palm Desert
Jan. 20-Jan. 25, 1998: Portland Civic, Portland, OR
Jan. 26-Jan. 29, 1998: Spokane Opera House, Spokane, WA
Feb. 3-Feb. 5, 1998: PAC, San Luis Obispo, CA
Feb. 6-Feb. 8, 1998: Aladdin PAC, Las Vegas
Feb. 10-Feb. 12, 1998: California Center, Escondido, CA
Feb. 13-Feb. 14, 1998: Centennial Hall, Tucson, AZ
Feb. 17-Feb. 22, 1998: Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City
Feb. 24-Feb. 26, 1998: Orpheum, Phoenix, AZ
Feb. 27-March 1, 1998: Popejoy Hall, Albuquerque, NM
March 3-March 6, 1998: Lincoln Center PAC, Fort Collins, CO
March 8, 1998: Topeka PAC, Topeka, KS
March 10-March 15, 1998: Palace, Columbus, OH
March 17-March 29, 1998: Victoria, Dayton, OH
March 31-April 5, 1998: Lyric Opera, Baltimore
April 14-April 19, 1998: Carpenter Center, Richmond, VA
April 21-April 26, 1998: Orpheum, Memphis, TN
April 28-29, 1998: Mandel Center, Benton Harbor, MI
April 30-May 3, 1998: Macomb Center, Clinton Township, MI