Tryon Little Theater presents State Fair with flair

Published 11:34 am Tuesday, March 7, 2023

State Fair is one of those timeless Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals that define an historic American era, and Tryon Little Theater should be given a blue ribbon for presenting it with such talent and heart.

The community theatre company opened the play this past weekend at Tryon Fine Arts Center, and if the Saturday night performance is any indication of the community’s support for its own, this coming weekend, March 10-12, will be another blockbuster.

The story of the Frake family’s three-day holiday to the Iowa State Fair is rooted in the 1932 novel by Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli. The wholesome Frakes — father Abel, mother Melissa, and young adult children Margy and Wayne — are a farming family, the kind of people who raise prize-winning pigs and make prize-winning sour pickles and mincemeat. Abel and Melissa are the epitome of a loving and enduring marriage, and the on-stage chemistry between Mark Sawyer and Susie Kocher strongly reinforces the notion that love can endure and conquer — even the budding passions of their children.

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Wayne, played by the youthful Alexander Poteat, is the all-American boy with his eye on longtime sweetheart Eleanor, played by Ella Hardigree. But as young men’s eyes often do, they can wander. Margy, played by Maggie Collins, also has a love interest, Harry, played by Luke Laughter. Margy has been a bit moody lately, not exactly sure she wants to marry Harry and longing for something more than the small-town life in America’s heartland. Collins’s first solo, It Might As Well Be Spring, serves both as an example of the actress’s incredibly strong voice and the character’s simmering discontent. Both siblings welcome the yearly opportunity to experience the excitement of the state fair in Des Moines in 1946.

With Blue Boy, the really big hog, in a cart and jars of pickles and mincemeat in hand, the Frakes head off to the fair with high hopes and dreams of romance yet to be dreamt. Yet, as happy as they all are, hometown soothsayer Dave Miller, played by Ken Snart, predicted that something would go wrong during the Frakes’ trip, and bet Abel $5 that he would be proven right.

The first true laughs in the show came as the Frakes drove through the night: As if they might have rhythmic ants in their pants, the family bounced through its singing of Driving At Night. Upon arriving at the fair the next morning, son Wayne’s excitement is expressed in the song That’s For Me, giving Poteat the opportunity to shine as both an exuberant singer and dancer. But as far as the first big moments go, my hand goes to the barbershop quartet-like song More Than Just A Friend by Sawyer, Snart, Alex Tapp, and Zeke Smith. These salt-of-the-earth characters were led to sing in harmony after sharing family snapshots and coos of affection for… not their children or grandchildren but their hogs.

This reviewer’s favorite actor of the show is Trey Westbrook, who played Pat Gilbert, a worldly newspaper reporter who tries (and succeeds) to sweep Margy off her feet. This young man is the whole package, with a strong and sturdy singing voice, sure-footedness in the dance routines, and a stage confidence that comes from working his craft. The 22-year-old Spartanburg native spends his summers performing at a dinner theater in Alaska and his winters performing throughout the Southeast. He was last seen in the Tryon Little Theater production of Bright Star. He’s a natural.

But Margy isn’t the only Frake to find a fling on the midway. Brother Wayne has met the feisty and somewhat mysterious Emily, played by Elizabeth Turner, who turns out to be a traveling wannabe Broadway star with a past. At the fair, she is lead singer for The Fairtones, a quintet of female performers. Now, both Wayne and Margy have met new but stated-plainly short-term love interests. As if to remind their children that true love endures, Abel and Melissa sing When I Go Out Walking With My Baby, further endearing Sawyer and Kocher’s on-stage marriage, only to be countered by Wayne and Emily’s harbinger song So Far.

Stage talent shines only as far as the production team’s ability to set the groundwork. Here, the multiple set designs by local artist Lindsey Moore capture the nostalgic sense of post-war Americana. Choreographers Missy Fincher and Peggy Magarahan showcase a variety of talent from tap to soft shoe to all-cast shindids. Very behind-the-scenes, live and great quality music was provided by seven local musicians, led by Pam McNeil. Director Dan Harvey and first-time Assistant Director Lori Lee can stand proud for pulling together a cast and crew that makes Tryon’s production of State Fair a night to be remembered.

Act II brings home blue ribbons, unrequited love, and a sense of life must go on — until love prevails again and again and again. Guess who lost that $5 bet? 

As a story, State Fair has been reincarnated several times. Originally intended to be a play, the novel became a nonmusical movie in 1933, starring Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor. Twelves years later, 20th Century Fox produced the first musical version with Charles Winninger and Fay Bainter. Rodgers and Hammerstein took an Oscar for their song, It Might As Well Be Spring. In 1962, the story was once again made into another movie, transplanting the setting from Iowa to Texas. Finally, in 1969, State Fair made its way to the live stage at The Muny in St. Louis, starting Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. But it wasn’t until 1992 that State Fair finally found a path to Broadway, via (of all places) the North Carolina School of the Arts. After playing in Long Beach, State Fair opened in 1996 on Broadway at the Music Box Theater. Despite the many efforts, rewrites, and juggling of songs, State Fair is now best known for its gigs at regional and community theaters — always a favorite among theatre fans and rarely criticized by professional critics. It has been nominated for many theatre awards, but sadly none have been received.

Tryon Little Theater is commended for taking a popular but checkered-past play to greater heights of enjoyment. From the applause, it is easy to say the local audience loved State Fair and loved seeing both seasoned and new talent on stage.