State Fair, the only musical Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote specifically for the screen and now receiving its European debut on stage, presents a world in which women cry over pickle-making contests while their menfolk get dewy-eyed over pigs.
It's the camper cousin of Oklahoma!, with about as much grit as an infant's eyeball. But, even though Thom Southerland's production at times leans towards the am-dram in terms of quality, there's a plentiful supply of memorable tunes that just about makes the trip to the Finborough worth it.
The story centres on the competitive and romantic aspirations of the Frake family as they make their annual pilgrimage to the Iowa State Fair ("the best State Fair in our State"). 'Mom' Melissa prepares her finest mincemeat mixture in the hope of finally securing first prize, while husband Abel (who rather disturbingly refers to his wife as 'Mother') is seeking similar glory with his boar Blue Boy. Meanwhile, their children Wayne and Margy are yearning for romantic adventure, which they duly find with a showgirl and a journalist respectively.
The stage version, which premiered at the Iowa State Fair in 1995 before opening to acclaim on Broadway the following year, is a neat and tidy package, featuring a book by Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli and a smorgasbord of songs from the original film and a selection of other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, including two numbers ("When I Go Out Walking With My Baby" and "Boys and Girls Like You and Me") which were cut from Oklahoma!.
Unfortunately, this pared down production struggles to grant State Fair the London premiere it deserves, proving musically underpowered and failing to utilise the advantages that presenting big shows in small venues can afford. It feels rather squashed in, like the company rehearsed in an air-hangar and were surprised by a sudden lack of performance space. And though the small surround-sound band, led competently by pianist Magnus Gilljam, do their best to carry over the big show numbers such as "Our State Fair" and "All I Owe Ioway", the chamber instruments (violin, clarinet) are ill-matched with the relatively large ensemble's hearty harmonies.
The company is a mixed bag, the stand-outs being Sion Lloyd as sheltered farmer's boy Wayne, Laura Main's equally-innocent Margy and Philip Rahm as hog-serenading Abel. Others struggle to keep pace, including Susan Travers as Melissa (not aided by some awkward blocking) and David Botham, who has the looks but lacks the charisma as womanising journalist Pat Gilbert.
With a larger venue and a bigger band, it's easy to see State Fair becoming more than a passing spectacle, but this incarnation doesn't quite merit the blue ribbon.