Primary gratitude must go to director Clive Cholerton for presenting the piece with very few changes to the score and libretto. Performed with only two pianos, musical director Howard Breitbart and his associate Michael Ursua accompany the 15 performers to the extent that one was not aware of a lack of a full orchestra.
Based on Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted, it's the story of Tony and his mail order bride Rosabella. What ensues was shocking for the 1950s but more than acceptable in this day and age. The friends and all "the neighbors' neighbors" constitute a thrillingly sung chorus who have the great fortune of singing some of the most beautiful music written for the theatre. In the past there has been great conjecture regarding Fella: Is it a musical comedy or is it an opera? Who cares? Just listen to that score.
In lesser voices one quakes to think of what the performance would be. Luckily, Cholerton has corralled some of the best voices in South Florida along with two Broadway ringers. In the lead, William Michals, late of South Pacific is Tony. From his terrific acting, his authentic Italian accent, and some of the most beautiful singing of this score I have ever heard, he inhabits the role perfectly. And, speaking of "perfection", Jessica Hershberg, a Broadway Cinderella alternate, is beyond words. A voice of such delicate beauty, a waif-like appearance yet with a spine of steel, she and Michals are a pair made in operatic, excuse me, musical comedy heaven.
Luckily, we have a terrific supporting cast as well. Jim Ballard is the melancholy Joey. Perfectly cast, the handsome singer/actor is as comfortable in the role as he is in his jeans and ten gallon hat. Vocally, he is perfect in his namesake song and equally adept in his acting. As Herman, from "Big D," Shane Tanner has the goofy chops to pull of such a likable oaf. We usually hear Tanner in more baritonal roles and, here, he is singing at the top of the tenor registerand doing it very well. His foil, the clarion Laura Hodos, belts her numbers to the rafters and beyond.
What makes the performance so special is Cholerton's eye for detail where the minor characters are concerned. Gabriel Zenone as The Doctor is a terrific, Carbonell-winning actor who is a recent arrival to South Florida. A lovely actor with a beautiful tenor, he makes the most of a role that could be nominal, at best. As the unsympathetic sister of Tony, Jeni Hacker manages to succeed where many of her Marie predecessors did not. She makes the role realistic and one cannot help but to empathize with her as she sees her older brother, who has never married, being taken from her life.
Special mention has to be made of the "Standin' on the Corner" singers: Anthony Zoeller, Matthew Korinko, Shane Tanner and, especially, Roland Rusinek. Rusinek, with his striking resemblance to Dom DeLuise, also, luckily, has the high tenor pipes of a young Pavarotti. Each of their numbers brought down the house, as they should have.
Staged readings (and this appeared anything but) usually have a minimum of dance. Lindsay Bell has created some wonderful choreographed moments throughout the entire presentation. Kudos to her for also making several cast members, who are not dancers, glide beautifully throughout the proceedings.
This is a master work that, due to its vocal requirements, is rarely performed. Dramaworks has done our community a huge favor. Thank you Clive Cholerton for an evening I will be remembering for a long, long time.
The Most Happy Fella through July 27, 2014, at Palm Beach Dramaworks, West Palm Beach. Wednesdays at 2pm and 8pm; Thursdays and Fridays @ 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm; Sundays at 2pm. For performance and ticket information, call 561-514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.
-- Jeffrey Bruce