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The Most Happy Fella

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray


Laura Benanti and Shuler Hensley.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Late in Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, the title character, Tony, a Napa Valley grape farmer, hears the true first name of his beloved for the first time. And you know what? It's not that special, at least when compared to what he's called her since before they even officially met: Rosabella. But it sounds so foreign that we have no choice but to accept the attractive young woman by her sobriquet as well; after all, it describes her soul, the beating heart of love unchained, a melody given feminine form and harnessed expressly for the purpose of bringing music to a life that's long been devoid of it.

Such rapturous romantic ideas are par for the course in The Most Happy Fella, and, to a slightly lesser degree, the City Center Encores! production of it that's playing through Sunday. Though on the face of it this 1956 show is one of Broadway's most curious Golden Age creations, adapting Sidney Howard's 1924 play They Knew What They Wanted by wading hip deep into opera without ever fully abandoning Main Stem showmanship, it's nonetheless one of the most sensible and realistic portrayals of imperfect love of the period (if ever). And, even when not everything is exactly right, as is the case with director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw's mounting, it's still irresistible.

It's the dichotomy of soul, in fact, that makes that possible. The romance between Tony (here, Shuler Hensley) and the so-called Rosabella (Laura Benanti) is one of clashing perspectives and generations. He's a European traditionalist with certain expectations of what should happen before and after marriage; she's a modern American who is, shall we say, experienced in ways Tony would not prefer. By fusing "heavy" and "light" music, Loesser highlights their differences and the obstacles before them so that there's no aural or dramatic discrepancy when this sophisticated San Francisco waitress duets with the wine man who woos her by mail even though the picture he sends is not of himself.

The compositional war at the work's center likewise finds form in the person of the man whose picture Tony uses instead, that of the handsome foreman Joey (Cheyenne Jackson), in Rosabella's squawky and saucy coworker Cleo (Heidi Blickenstaff) and the cowboy named Herman (Jay Armstrong Johnson) she falls for when she comes to town, and in Tony's well-meaning but meddling sister Marie (Jessica Molaskey). Every scene and song presents another argument in the question of which sound, which outlook, should win and why, and makes us wonder if maybe we're all better off if they intermingle.

From a theatrical standpoint, there's no question. Though Loesser is best known for his musical comedies (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), this "serious" work is every bit as good, counting (among many others) the lush "Somebody, Somewhere," the rhapsodic "My Heart Is So Full of You," the comic "Standing on the Corner," the dynamic "Big D," the full-out operetta tribute of "Abbondanza," and the strings of recitative that hold the rest together. Varied as the numbers may be, they cohesively outline the rocky and unpredictable emotions that bring Rosabella to both Tony's arms and Joey's bed, Cleo to the rescue of the welcome-mat Herman, and forgiveness to even the most steadfastly defiant.


Jay Armstrong Johnson and Heidi Blickenstaff with the company.
Photo by Joan Marcus

This is humanity at its fullest and most complex, and is only amplified by Don Walker's stirring orchestrations, which the unusually large 38-piece Encores! Orchestra, under the baton of Rob Berman, plays with lavish attention. The set (John Lee Beatty) and the costumes (Gregg Barnes) are simpler than what recent Encores! outings have led us to expect, but if those sacrifices are necessary to get the extra players both in the orchestra and on the stage (the cast also totals 38), I for one am willing to embrace them.

With everything else, that's a bit harder. Nicholaw's direction is, as usual, on the flat side, and his dances more dependent on glitz than appropriateness for period or character—the visuals are good, (most notably in the high-strutting "Big D") but they're never quite a tight fit for their surroundings, musical or otherwise. And this "concert adaptation" (by Bill Rosenfield), which chops three acts to two, institutes a number of other fairly clunky (if small) elisions, and allows for little breathing room between the songs, bestows an uneasy abruptness to the proceedings.

Then there's the casting. Of the "legit" leads, only Benanti and Molaskey truly blend pristine, passionate vocals with precise acting. Benanti reads a shade too mature, but has the gleaming soprano and modern attitude to demonstrate the critical difference between how Rosabella is perceived and what she is. Molaskey unites genuine concern and silent self-interest to create a woman capable of being simultaneously the best and worst person in the room, and she keeps you guessing—and caring—about Marie throughout.

Hensley is more problematic. He projects the proper optimism and disappointment as required, and is as ingratiating when courting as he is terrifying when raging against betrayal. But he's also vocally underpowered, lacking the hefty bass-baritone Tony's music needs to grant him sympathetic weight; because Hensley doesn't completely connect to the music, he doesn't completely connect to Tony. Similarly, Jackson's voice is good for a pop musical but not especially resonant for Loesser's loftier chores; and a general onstage indifference about him makes Joey too blasé as either an object of desire or a threat.

Blickenstaff, though, is a kick as Cleo, with first-class belting and a sharp comic sense that couldn't be better used. And though Johnson falls short of selling Herman as a hardcore Dallas wrangler type, he's a goofy, amiable presence who brings plenty of verve to his second-banana songs. Brian CalĂ­, Bradley Dean, and Zachary James thrill as operatic waiters peddling amore, and Kevin Vortmann delights as the Napa doctor who writes no shortage of extra-medical prescriptions.

That such a relatively minor character can seem so integral—and yet not steal focus—is a testament to Loesser's incredible accomplishment. Like Tony (in writing, at least), the more charm he pours on, the bigger, better, and more captivating he becomes. Sure, there are a few missteps, but even so it's difficult to imagine how this Most Happy Fella could be bigger, more captivating, or more charming than it is.


The Most Happy Fella
Through Sunday, April 6
New York City Center's Mainstage, 55th Street between 6th and 7th avenues.
Tickets and performance schedule at nycitycenter.org


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