Off Broadway Reviews
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.
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 characterthe 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 guessingand caringabout 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 Calí, 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 integraland yet not steal focusis 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