Much has been written (elsewhere) about Disney's latest movie turned stage production High School Musical. But Thursday evening, I traveled to the smallish college town of River Falls, Wisconsin to take in the real deal: an honest to goodness high school musical production. There I discovered two very different arcs coming together.
River Falls High School is currently presenting Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair, which like the aforementioned High School Musical originated off the stage (the High School Musical film premiered on television, while State Fair as musical was first presented in two versions on the silver screen).
One of the arcs that made this production especially noteworthy was that its director, teacher Emily Lyon, is the great niece of Phil Stong, who wrote the source novel on which the show was based. Lyon certainly knows her way around the Iowa State Fair where the musical is set. Her family is well-known throughout the Hawkeye State for their contributions to its premiere annual event: her father Joe Lyon for his award-winning Jerseys and her mother Norma "Duffy" Lyon for her 45 year tenure as the beloved "Butter Cow Lady."
In her director's notes, Lyon states:
State Fair is about the glass being half empty or half full. Phil Stong, my great uncle, wrote this one-hit-wonder novel in the 30s. At the end of the book, the glass was half empty -- the story did not have a happy ending.
The novel was made into a Hollywood movie starring Will Rogers. (My mother remembers attending a gala opening, but was so young that only the details she
imparted to the family were that her mother scolded her in the women's restroom for some transgression and that she collected actors' autographs.)
In the 40s, Rodgers and Hammerstein contracted the rights and made it into a feel-good WWII-antidote. This time the glass was half full. In the 60s, Hollywood did a remake "blockbuster" starring Pat Boone and Ann-Margret at the Texas State Fair. This time the glass was half full...of sour milk.
Someone adapted the novel into a stage play, but no stage musical. With only four or five wonderful tunes ("It Might As Well Be Spring" had won an Academy Award), the musical languished.
Finally, Hammerstein's son collaborated with others, adding music from the R&H trunk to make a stage musical. It premiered Des Moines, Iowa in August of 1995. My daughter and I attended a special performance with my mother and father. (No scoldings in the restroom this time.) When the company did "Ioway," the Iowa house "rocked" of course. This production toured before it went to Broadway. It fell far short of a Broadway success, but the glass was half full again. I've waited a long time to direct this great slice of Iowa pie.
My mother's great-grandfather was on an early Iowa State Fair Board, my mother was the Iowa State Fair Butter Cow Lady for over 40 years, my father has shown champion Jersey cows (not swine) at 58 Iowa State Fairs. The "Blue Boy trophy" sat on a shelf on our porch for decades. Our family's interpretation of the fates' intervention was expressed in Grandma's terse, "It will all come out in the wash."
This musical is not an Iowa tribute, Iowa being the butt of many jokes. Instead, it is a musical that celebrates the values of America's heartland...fragile romantic optimism, hope and pride balanced by the harsh realities of hard work and inevitable disappointments. However, sometimes the Dave Millers of the world lose, and we win.
By the way, Phil Stong's mother's cupboard is the one we are using on our set. Sometimes it's half empty, sometimes it's half full.
I hope you will enjoy this company's performance.
So it was with lots of loving care that Lyon put together this paean to her original home state and its people (and yes, Em, I do think that ultimately State Fair treats Iowans with respect). Through the assistance of her daughter Abigail Testa's intricate lighting design and David Markson's impeccable set design, the show had a beautiful look. And of course, it's always a treat to see the talent of teenagers singing, dancing and acting their hearts out, with standout performances by Bethany Tunheim as Margy Frake and Seth Stratton as Abel Frake.
Earlier, I mentioned two arcs coming together. The second, unexpected arc came in learning that one of the principal actors was the young Mike Marita as Pat. The last name sounded very familiar. Much to my pleasant surprise, I learned that Mike is the son of Jim Marita, one of my own high school classmates from Homestead High in Mequon, a suburb of Milwaukee -- some 320 miles away from River Falls. What made it all the more ironic was that the elder Marita took on the role of Tevya in my high school's production of Fiddler On The Roof (and I can still vividly recall his wonderful performance).
I had a chance to briefly catch up with Jim after not having seen him in at least 20 years. He told me that it was our high school's production of South Pacific the year prior to Fiddler that inspired him to try out for Tevye (incidentally, South Pacific provided me with my only stage role ever as Lieutenant Joseph Cable). Jim went on to become a theatre major in college, although his career path has since swung to a corporate position, although his fondness for theatre undoubtedly helped pave the way for his scion.
Having these two arcs intertwine provided me with a very unique theatre experience that I won't soon forget. And it just goes to show you that attending a high school musical can still delight!
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).
Will It Play in Peoria? How About Iowa? (July 24, 2006)