John Davidson Gets Back to His Roots in Touring State Fair

Special Features   John Davidson Gets Back to His Roots in Touring State Fair


There is something perennially youthful about John Davidson; maybe it's the dimples that even now, at 56, still lend a boyish air to the actor who made his Broadwayway debut in 1964 opposite Bert Lahr in Foxy and then wowed audiences as Curly in a 1965 revival of Oklahoma!

But he's happy to segue from romantic leads to older character parts and has found the perfect vehicle in Abel Frake, the cheery farmer in Rodgers and Hammer-stein's State Fair, which was adapted for Broadway last season and which is now in the midst of a 36-city tour, including San Luis Obispo, Escondida, Salt Lake City, Tucson and Las Vegas during February.

"I wanted to start playing older parts for survival if nothing else," says Davidson with a laugh. "The last tour I was on, a reviewer said that I was too old to play Curly, and he was right. This gives me a chance to grow my gray hair out and play my age. What I'd been doing before this, the talk shows, the game shows, were fun, but I knew I had these stage abilities. It's brought me back to my roots."

State Fair, which R&H first wrote as a film musical in 1945 (and later remade in 1962) is meeting with more success around the country than it did in New York, where it had a modest run despite the last-minute involvement of one-time Broadway titan David Merrick, who proffered additional capital and some rather eccentric marketing choices. Davidson enthusiastically praises the new director, Richard Sabellico (James Hammerstein and Randy Skinner directed it on Broadway), and cast whom he says make up for their comparative lack of big-name credits with a winning youth and enthusiasm -- qualities that he says are just right for the Iowa family who along with the prize pig, Mom's preserves and their respective dreams head for the state fair.

Says Davidson by way of explaining the show's specific appeal, "From its beginning the premise was that a simple musical, like The Music Man, could work in the 1990's. And the book for this production is very today; the dialogue is very nineties. It doesn't have the cobwebs of Oklahoma! or South Pacific or Carousel for that matter. The human values and universal truths are very apparent in the show."

Davidson, who was a 4-H member during his Mass. boyhood as the son of a Baptist minister, has purveyed those homespun values in a long career encompassing stage, film and television. For four years he even owned his own theatre in which he would often appear, in Branson, MO. He has pulled up stakes, however, selling his homes both in Missouri and in California, and says that he will settle in the N.Y. area when the State Fair tour finishes.

In the fall Davidson says that he plans to begin touring in a revised production of Bully, Jerome Alden's one-man portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, which was created by James Whitmore and which Davidson hopes will become his "signature piece." The production received a very favorable response during its tryout runs last May in Minnesota and Connecticut. Davidson idolizes the former President (who invented the bully pulpit) as a man of action, inspiration and elocution. "It's a highly physical, exhausting role, but so rewarding," he says. "He used to say, 'Life is a gallop, you either rust out or wear out. I prefer to wear out.' So do I."

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