Laura Benanti and Shuler Hensley
in a scene from The Most Happy Fella
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Frank Loesser was a chameleon. Unlike other Golden Age of Broadway songwriters, he was able to change styles from show to show: the composer of Where’s Charley? bears little resemblance to the creator of How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, with the “Noo Yawk” pastiche of Guys and
Dolls and the folksy Greenwillow in between. His operatic The
Happy Fella, which the New York City Center Encores! has revived as the second offering of its regular season is further evidence of this diversity of style. This robust, colorful show has been given a full-blooded, energetic staging, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (Aladdin and Book of Mormon). The Loesser score gets its full due by the cast of talented singer/actors and the Encores! Orchestra under the exuberant direction of Rob Berman bringing out every nuance, harmony and rhythmic impulse of this rich music.
Most Happy Fella begins with Tony Esposito, a farmer in Napa leaving an extraordinary tip for Amy, a San Francisco waitress he’s keen on. He calls her Rosabella. She doesn’t exactly remember him but is willing to enter into a correspondence with him. When she finally plans to visit and asks for a photo, Tony, who is actually older and not exactly a looker, sends her a picture of his handsome foreman Joey. When Rosabella does show up it’s to a chaotic scene: Tony has broken his leg en route to pick up Rosabella and she discovers he’s not a handsome young man. She is emotionally extorted into marrying the injured Tony. Disappointed, she falls into Joey’s arms.
Soon she discovers the pleasures of Tony’s life and actually falls for him, her fling with Joey becoming a sour memory. Tony’s overly maternal sister Marie does everything she can to destroy Tony’s relationship with Rosabella, constantly putting her down, even to Rosabella’s best friend and fellow waitress, lusty Cleo, whom Tony invites up to the ranch to keep Rosabella company. Cleo falls for affable ranch hand Herman who she discovers comes from her hometown, Dallas leading to the big ensemble number “Big ‘D’,” one of the several hit songs from a superbly melodic score that rises to Puccini-esque heights at times, but also illuminates the comedy and everyday activities of Tony’s community. There are numbers for three boisterous operatic waiters—”Sposalizio,” “Abbondanza,” “Benvenuta”—and hilarious bits for Cleo like “Ooh! My Feet!” about the vicissitudes of waitressing and big ensemble numbers like “Big ‘D’,” the lovely “Song of a Summer Night” and “Fresno Beauties.” The most famous song from the show is probably “Standing on the Corner,” a barbershop-harmony ditty sung by Herman and his friends as they peruse the girls passing by.
The love stories of Rosabella and Cleo run into difficulties, but all ends well in a rousing finale, a reprise of the soaringly emotional “My Heart is So Full of You.”
Nicholaw’s staging wrings every nuance from the book and songs. His choreography, danced by an energetic cast is balletic with lots of all-American zest.
Jay Armstrong Johnson, Heidi Blickenstaff and
cast in a scene from The Most Happy Fella
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Laura Benanti as Amy/Rosabella has never been so poignant and vulnerable. The size of her soprano is a pleasant surprise. Shuler Hensley’s Tony is probably the best I’ve ever seen, a rich combination of pathos, strength, with a strong baritone that easily rises to the demands of the score. Heidi Blickenstaff’s Cleo was just about perfect, her rich voice and comic timing infectious. As her boyfriend Herman, Jay Armstrong Johnson was, if anything, too good looking and sexy for this slightly nebbishy character, but he sang well and turned out to be a great comic actor. Marie was played by Jessica Molaskey whose psychological torment and neediness was beautifully played. She, too, displayed a layered, dramatic singing voice that added to the texture of all her numbers. Cheyenne Jackson was an ideal Joey, from his sultry voice to his sensual body language.
This was one of the Encores! better productions, but is probably not one that can transfer anywhere, which is a shame because it is a glowing example of the craft and artistry of American musical theater.
The regular Encores! season concludes May 7 – 11 with Irma la Douce. Encores! Off-Center will present three off-Broadway works this summer, beginning with tick, tick…Boom! (June 25 – 28, 2014), Randy Newman’s Faust: The Concert (July 1st) and Pump Boys and Dinettes (July 16
The Most Happy Fella (April 2 – 6, 2014)
New York City Center Encores!
131 West 55th Street, between 6th & 7th Avenues, in Manhattan
Tickets and Information: 212-581-1212 or http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running Time: 2 hours and thirty minutes including one intermission