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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


The Most Happy Fella and Into the West

Frank Loesser's lesser-known hit, the 1956 musical The Most Happy Fella, currently playing at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, is a hard show to classify, as almost 75% of the show is set to music that encompasses a wide variety of genres. Oftentimes, the show closely resembles light opera both musically and thematically: "Songs Of A Summer Night," for instance, could have been lifted from a Victor Herbert operetta and "Abbondanza" would not be out of place in Rossini's The Barber of Seville. Fella also contains a trio of shimmering, soprano ballads that are among Loesser's most beautiful compositions: "My Heart Is So Full Of You," "Warm All Over," and "Somebody, Somewhere." But Fella veers into pure musical theater territory with a jazz/barbershop fusion number ("Standing On The Corner," the one lasting hit from the show) and several comedy belt songs (such as "Ooh! My Feet", which along with "Standing" was cut from Loesser's Guys and Dolls).


Julian Patrick & Patti Cohenour
Based on Sydney Howard's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, They Knew What They Wanted, Fella is a tale of love and betrayal set in sun-drenched Napa Valley. Tony (Julian Patrick), an aging Italian immigrant vineyard owner, falls in love with a waitress in a San Francisco coffee shop and courts her through a note left at the restaurant and subsequent letters. He tricks the waitress, (the dulcet toned Patti Cohenour) whom he has christened 'Rosabella,' into coming to his vineyard in order to marry him by sending her a picture of his foreman, the much younger and more attractive Joe (Cheyenne Jackson). Hurt by his deception and finding Tony unattractive ("He's so old ... I don't want him breathing on me!") she falls into the arms (and bed) of Joe on her wedding night, as Tony is out of commission due to an automobile accident. Of course, this being a musical from the '50s (and one with the word 'happy' in its title to boot), the two discover that the love that blossomed through their written correspondence surpasses the initial physical attraction (or lack thereof), although not without complications and traumas.

To further flesh out the story, Loesser included three secondary characters not found in the original play: Tony's grasping and controlling sister, Marie (well played and sung by Mary Jo DuGaw), Rosabella's friend, Cleo (the brash and brassy Lisa Estridge-Gray), and the farmhand she falls for, the lovable pushover, Herman (Tom Plotkin).

Fella is a very hard show to stage as it demands leads that can handle the operatic nature of the songs as well as the all-too-human emotions that fuel them. Luckily, this production is blessed by two very strong leads that are more than up to the challenges. Patti Cohenour makes a spectacular Rosabella, pouring her heart into each of the ballads, firmly connecting with both the emotions of the lyrics and with her costars. Julian Patrick presents a very believable Tony; a man crippled by his insecurities (no thanks to his sister's machinations and verbal abuse) and belief that a woman like Rosabella would be unable to love the man beneath the white hair. Lisa Estridge-Gray is perfectly cast as the feisty Cleo, and she and Tom Plotkin make for a sprightly and entertaining pair. The only part that is somewhat disappointing is that of the foreman, Joe. While Cheyenne Jackson looks every inch the character and has a pleasant voice, there is little connection either to the lyrics or to other cast members, especially the object of his (albeit limited) affection, Rosabella.

Given a largely stellar cast and some of musical theater's most beautiful numbers, how could this production fail? Unfortunately, by not trusting the material and shortchanging its audience. Having been exposed to Fella over a decade ago, the lack of resonance and character development in this production is surprising. While it is true that the show has some structural problems (the patchwork of musical styles does not create a seamless whole and there are far too many comic throwaway numbers that do nothing to advance the plot or develop characters), the show can, and indeed should, be an affecting love story about a couple working through their mutual fears and deceptions.

However, a great deal of material has been excised from this production. Gone is the scene where Rosabella discusses her pregnancy with Cleo. The farmhands' abuse of Herman has been downgraded from his being tied up and humiliated to simply being asked to sweep up a cigarette butt, thus making his climactic number of self-assurance ("I Made A Fist") less than effective. Most puzzling is the exclusion of Tony's most passionate number, "Mama, Mama," in which he breaks free from the chains of self-doubt and familial control to become his own man.

Although these cuts (along with others not mentioned) condense what is, admittedly, a long, three-act musical into two more concise and manageable acts, a great deal is lost in terms of character development and, more importantly, dramatic thrust. Frank Loesserıs most ambitious and powerful show is ill-served by such treatment and is redeemed only through some stellar performances, chief of which being Patti Cohenourıs touching portrayal of Rosabella (her rendition of "My Heart Is So Full Of You" being worth the price of admission alone) and a rare opportunity to hear it performed with a full orchestra.

The Most Happy Fella runs at 5th Avenue Theatre through March 24th. For more information visit www.5thavenuetheatre.org

A mythic tale of pure imagination is being presented at Seattle Children's Theatre, with a stage adaptation of the 1993 Irish film, Into The West. A modern fairy tale that is equal parts Irish mythology and childish wish fulfillment, Into The West is a tale of redemption as told by three actors playing sixty-three characters, creating an event of pure magic in the process.


Cast of Into the West
Photo by Chris Bennion

Ally (Jennifer Sue Johnson) and Finn (Jason Collins) are two children left to their own devices after their Pa (Timothy Hyland) moves them out of the nomadic life of the Travelers and into Dublin, where he practically abandons them while he ekes out a meager existence (spending way too much time in the pubs in the process). One day, their grandpa shows up with a white horse that followed him to their doorstep; a horse that the children promptly bond with and name 'Tir Na n'Og' after the mythical land under the sea. Determined to keep what appears to be a mystical beast, the kids try to keep the horse in their cramped apartment, to the disgust of their neighbors. After losing the horse to corrupt police officers, Ally and Finn steal back their friend and head 'into the west' in a tale that ultimately concerns itself with familial healing.

Into The West is an incredible piece of theatrical storytelling at its finest. The three actors rapidly shift characters largely through attitude and inflection, as costumes and props are practically nonexistent. The direction by Greg Banks (who also adapted the work) is seamless and spot-on, creating an incredibly powerful and moving tale. The only other 'character' in the show is Pat Spaeth, the musician who provides underscoring (written by Tom Johnson) and sound affects, which serve to augment the dramatic tensions and give humorous releases. The set by Carey Wong and the costumes by Deborah Skorstad are magical in their simplistic utilitarianism and are enhanced by Greg Sullivan's lighting design.

To examine the show in greater detail would blunt some of its magic, which I am loathe to do as Into The West is one of the best shows I have seen in Seattle all year and should be experienced by one and all. While recommended for children above the age of eight, I witnessed a large number of kids in the 6 to 8 range, all of whom were watching in rapt attention, absorbing every magical transformation and detail.

Into The West runs at the Seattle Children's Theatre through April 28th. For more information visit www.sct.org




- Jonathan Frank



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