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Most Happy Fella

After its brief foray into the world of book musicals (1776), Reprise! returns to more familiar territory with Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella. Even though Reprise's fully-staged productions can no longer be called "concert" musicals, the emphasis has always been on finding rarely-revived musical scores and singing the hell out of them. The Most Happy Fella is what Reprise! is all about. In terms of the sheer size of the score, over forty songs, this is the most ambitious production Reprise! has ever attempted. And perhaps because Reprise! has chosen the cast for vocal prowess rather than name recognition, it succeeds.

The story, which is secondary in importance in this production, surrounds the letter-writing courtship of Tony, a Napa Valley farmer, and a beautiful San Francisco waitress whom he calls Rosabella. It is a sign of how dated this musical is (it takes place in 1955) that Tony actually has moral qualms about sending Rosabella the photograph of a younger man in place of his own. In a further sign of the innocence of the times, Rosabella arrives in Napa to meet her fiance, never once questioning that perhaps the tall, blond handsome man in the photograph is not the Italian immigrant whose love letters arrived in broken English.

It is easy to check your cynicism at the door with this production. Lighting designer Tom Ruzika bathes the stage in a golden glow, creating a sun-dappled Napa Valley where the entire community eagerly awaits Tony's next letter from Rosabella, everyone is smiling and welcoming, and the backbreaking work of a grape harvest is transformed into a cause for joyous song.

The real surprise, then, is that Rosabella responds to the revelation of Tony's deception not by proclaiming her love for her letter-writing Cyrano, but by despairing that she has been duped into promising herself to a man she finds physically repulsive. The score of The Most Happy Fella veers, at times, toward opera, and the story does as well. One is not quite certain until the very last scene whether Tony and Rosabella will end up happily married, or tragically dead.

George Ball leads the cast as Tony, and he is perfectly convincing with Tony's heavily-accented lines and oversized heart. Rodney Gilfry is Joe, the hunk whose photograph reaches Rosabella, and when he opens his mouth to sing, he sets loose a warm operatic baritone which surely would have wooed Rosabella had Tony somehow misappropriated his voice, rather than his image. And Kevin Earley, as the cheerful farm hand who gets two of the show's most recognizable songs ("Standing on the Corner" and "Big D") is delightfully comic and charismatic. This is Earley's second consecutive show for Reprise!, and his second captivating performance; we really have to keep an eye on this guy. And if that weren't enough, there are two terrific trios in the cast. David Brouwer, Damon Kirsche and John Ganun back up "Standing on the Corner" with lovely harmony and R.F. Daley, Stephen Reed, and Daniel Guzman sing "Abbondanza" as though they've been singing together (in Italian) for years.

The men of this cast are so incredible, the women sometimes struggle to keep up. Anastasia Barzee sings Rosabella with a lilting soprano, and her acting is effective in both her light comedy scenes and her more intense emotional ones. However, transitions between the two seem forced, and when her attitude toward Tony changes, it is difficult to see any internal motivation. Jennifer Leigh Warren plays Cleo, Rosabella's best friend. She is terrific in her solo numbers, but her voice has too much of a rock 'n' roll sensibility to blend easily in some of her duets.

These are minor problems. Reprise! has assembled a cast of twenty-three powerful voices, backed them by a seventeen-piece orchestra, and let them loose on a huge and varied Frank Loesser score. It's what Reprise! does best.

Reprise! Broadway's Best; Marcia Seligson, Producing Artistic Director; Ronn Goswick, Managing Director; presents Frank Loesser's musical The Most Happy Fella, based on Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted. Book, Music & Lyrics by Frank Loesser. Scenic Design by Robert L. Smith; Costume Design by Scott A. Lane; Lighting Design by Tom Ruzika; Sound Design by Philip G. Allen; Associate Music Director Bruce W. Coyle; Technical Director Peter Falco; Stage Manager Sherry Santillano; Original Orchestrations by Don Walker; Casting Director Bruce H. Newberg, C.S.A; Press Representative Davidson & Choy Publicity; General Manager Kelly Estrella; Managing Director Ronn Goswick. Produced by Marcia Seligson; Music Direction by Peter Matz; Choreographed by Kay Cole; Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman.

Cast:

Cashier - Joseph McNally
Cleo - Jennifer Leigh Warren
Rosabella - Anastasia Barzee
Postman - Gibby Brand
Tony - George Ball
Marie - Eileen Barnett
Herman - Kevin Earley
Clem - David Brouwer
Jake - Damon Kirsche
Al - John Ganun
Joe - Rodney Gilfry
Pasquale - R.F. Daley
Giuseppe - Stephen Reed
Ciccio - Daniel Guzman
Country Girl - Tricia Ridgway
City Boy - Trevor Brackney
Doc - Sean Smith
Priest - Joseph McNally
Tessie - Nohea Bryce
Gussie - Brendan Silver
Bus Driver - Gibby Brand
The folks of San Francisco and the Napa Valley - Trevor Brackney, David Brouer, Nohea Bryce, Beth Curry, Patrice DeGraff-Arenas, John Ganun, Pia C. Glenn, Damon Kirsche, Natalie Nucci, Tricia Ridgway, Brendan Silver

The Most Happy Fella played at the UCLA Freud Playhouse through November 18, 2001.


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-- Sharon Perlmutter




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