STATE FAIR at Washington’s Crossing Open Air Theatre

by Dennis Dougherty

Jordan Brennan as Pat Gilbert, Jill Palena as Margy Frake, Mike Nappi as Wayne Frake, and Kaeli Fitzgerald as Emily Arden in Open Air Theatre's STATE FAIR, running through May 22.

With a number of strong performances and often exceptional choreography, the Downtown Performing Arts Center’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s STATE FAIR at the Washington’s Crossing Open Air Theatre was a mildly entertaining evening hindered by limited technical capabilities and weak direction.

Adapted from Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein’s only musical written for the screen, STATE FAIR is the simple tale of the Frake family and the adventures they have attending the annual Iowa state fair. Mother and Father fret about the mincemeat or the pig they will be entering in competitions. Son and Daughter, on the brink of adulthood, consider the wide world outside their small-town existence and dream of romance.

In order to make this featherweight musical come alive takes a stronger hand than was shown here by director Louis Palena. There didn’t seem to be a true sense of place and period for a show set in 1949. There is a tone and style to that era – especially for these Iowa farm folk – that could have been exploited more effectively in telling this slight tale. It sometimes seemed to be a contemporary take of the story. Better pacing, stronger sense of character for the chorus members and more interesting blocking would have helped, as well. Thoughtful groupings of actors as opposed to static lines across the stage could have changed the impression. And the scenes set off on the stage right side seemed disconnected, in addition to the fact that they were totally lost for some audience members because of sightline issues.

Several standout performances, however, were a welcome antidote. Of particular note were the four young leads. Mike Nappi was charming as the eager son, Wayne Frake. He created a fresh-faced and sincere character, while also showing himself to be an exceptional singer and dancer. Jill Palena was no less accomplished as the daughter, Margie, but sometimes seemed less secure in how she carried herself onstage. Jordan Brennan had just the right slick sensibility for Pat Gilbert, the “worldly” reporter who woos Margie at the fair. A talented and energetic dancer, I only wish Brennan had danced more “as” the character (I’m not sure Pat Gilbert would have expressed himself in the same style as the performer). Kaeli Fitzgerald was a force to be reckoned with as Emily Arden, the spitfire entertainer with a bit of a past who captured Wayne’s attention at the fair. Fitzgerald gave off attitude with a subtle touch and played “sultry” and “experienced” without overdoing it, while also finding the tender heart in this woman.

Arnold Aromando was solid and steady as the father, Abel, but not always natural or comfortable. Aimee Miller had moments of humor and strength as the mother, Melissa, but could be a bit stilted in her delivery. In smaller roles, Steve Croce was a fine country bumpkin as Abel’s buddy Lem; Cheyenne Carr was assured and funny as little Violet; Maria Aromando (Vivian) and Nicole Calabrese (Jeanne) were sassy and fun as a pair of dancers working the fair; and Ben Cramer, Kyle McClellan, Richard Barnes and Will Toborowski had all the right moves as Emily’s chorus boys, The Fairtones.

What also stood out in this production was Palena’s choreography. There was great spirit and energy in the performing of it and, though a couple of larger cast numbers are less successful, the overall style and substance was wonderful. There were fantastic solo moments for Margie and Pat (and a sweet dance for them together); lovely waltzing through “A Grand Night for Singing”; spirited work in “All I Owe Ioway”; and, especially fun was the Jack Cole-inspired moves created for the Fairtones as part of Emily’s act.

The Open Air Theatre presents some distracting lighting issues for this production and the set was appropriate for the locations, but not really polished or inventive. Costumes were fine, much more so for the principals than the chorus, but even then lacked details (hats, jackets, gloves, etc) – especially considering the era.

In the midst of a lovely setting, this was a pleasant enough night of old-fashioned musical theatre, but missed opportunities and limited technical and creative resources diminished the overall impact.

Book by Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Louis Palena
May 13 – 22, 2011
Open Air Theatre
355 Washington Crossing-Pennington Rd
Titusville, NJ

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1 comment

Jay Writer May 19, 2011 - 12:17 pm

With all due respect, I’m not sure which night you saw the show, but I saw it and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing.

I think this was a very thoughtful and honest review. But I think it’s important to point out to those who may not be familiar with this area, this is an outdoor theater. The beautiful setting in which this theater rests becomes part of the overall experience – the canopy of lush green trees and the (hopefully) clear starfilled sky bring a bit of something extra. What you inevitably lose in technical capabilities in this rustic setting is more than offset by these wonderful natural features.

When you state that Ms. Palena seemed to be not “secure” in her performance I can’t help but begin to question your credibility. I’ve seen Ms. Palena in numerous performances and rarely have seen anyone quite as “secure” as she. In fact, she is usually quite on fire on the stage. Perhaps there was something you simply did not “get” in her performance. Although, I suppose everyone has an off night from time to time.


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