Bizarre antics saturate the New York International Fringe Festival, but one particularly brazen act will likely perplex and intrigue New Yorkers more than any nudity or profanity. Feast your eyes, dear cosmopolitan readers, on the simple joys of hay baling. Direct from the heartland, Farmer Song: The Musical is a charming, down-home venture set in Iowa and delivered by an authentic Iowan cast, some of whom, according to the program, are or have been farmers. Although it suffers from sluggish direction and the acting restraints of many of its cast members, Farm Song offers an important message cushioned by an endearing love story.
As explained in the program, the "farm crisis" swept the Midwest in the 1980s. Interest rates soared, land values dropped, and the resulting debt left many farmers struggling to get by. The show opens with the auction of Frank and Ruth Whitby's farm property. Despite the meager odds, their daughter Becky and her husband Carl decide to make their future in farming, and the musical chronicles their attempts to make a living.
Supported by a thumping three-piece band (fiddle, bass, and guitar), Joe Hynek's pleasant score—a blend of bluegrass, country, and folk—conjures up dusty roads and rusty sunsets. His lyrics are sometimes awkwardly phrased ("I wish that the wealth in our country was more spread across"), but certain songs, like the yearning ballad "Wild Rose," leave you wanting more.
The production plods along steadily in want of more focused direction. Conversations often meander and trail off inexplicably, and sharp attention to the show's central conflicts would certainly pep up its book. Stronger direction would also benefit the cast members, who—while earnest and plucky—turn in extremely uneven performances. The dissonant acting styles veer from naturalistic to presentational to completely bombastic. Still, Hynek and Amy Burgmaier (as Becky) generate sweet chemistry as the young couple. And Joel Perkins, the banker, gives a thrilling performance of the bluesy "Honest, Stubborn, and Simple," a melancholy ode to hardworking farmers. Perkins has such a genuine presence and lovely, easy voice that I found myself wishing for more verses.
If its melodramatic tangles are often laughable, the crucial subject matter that Farmer Song addresses is certainly not. Kudos to this hard-working troupe for trucking in to give New Yorkers a taste of something more wholesome and no less incisive than the usual artsy offerings. The Fringe is all about eclecticism and daring, and Pumptown Productions is working to redefine its borders on a new frontier.