BWW Reviews: THE MOST HAPPY FELLA Is Sublimely Sung and Acted
Along with every other musical that 1956-57 Broadway season, Frank Loesser's adaptation of Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted was pretty much overshadowed by Lerner and Lowe's take on Pygmalion. In some circles, The Most Happy Fella would be best known as the musical Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel tried seeing with only two tickets. (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were investors.)
With a book written by Loesser himself, The Most Happy Fella was a distinct departure from his previous musical comedy hits, Where's Charley? and Guys and Dolls; a lush, romantic musical drama in the fairly new Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition. But many also compared it with opera, with its three-act structure and unusual abundance of songs connected by very little dialogue. Loesser preferred to call it, "A musical with a lot of music."
That sumptuous music, a prime collection of rousers, comic novelties and legit ballads beautifully orchestrated by Don Walker, sounds quite glorious as played by music director/conductor Rob Berman's 38 pieces.
Set primarily in Napa Valley, the story concerns Tony, a middle-aged Italian immigrant vineyard owner who anonymously tips the pretty young waitress who served him in a San Francisco diner with a jeweled tie clip and a romantic note, written in his broken English, asking if she would do him the honor of sending a post card in response.
Shuler Hensley, an expert in playing troubled souls with tender pathos (He won a Tony for his sympathetic Jud Fry in Oklahoma!), makes for a loveable Tony; a kind gent with a child-like spirit, whose self-consciousness about his age, accent and looks disappears with his impassioned vocals.
After a lengthy correspondence, the waitress, who he has deemed Rosabella for want of her real name, sends her photo and Tony, who admits to not being the brightest guy around, replies with a photo of his handsome young foreman, Joey, claiming it to be him. Joey has already handed in his notice and Tony expects him to be gone when Rosabella arrives to finally meet him, but complications ensue, including a near-fatal accident, an unconsummated marriage and a consummated mutual attraction.
The versatile Laura Benanti sets aside her comic chops for this ingénue role, singing in a stirring and mature romantic soprano. As Joey, Cheyenne Jackson makes the haunting ballad of wanderlust, "Joey, Joey, Joey," a hypnotically chilling moment. Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw stages most of the ballads with very little movement, keeping focus on the exceptionally expressive lyrics.
The musical's dance moments are mostly of the "locals dance in celebration" variety and Nicholaw keeps them flashy and fun.
Moving swiftly between such top-notch songs as "Somebody, Somewhere," "Standing On The Corner," "Abbondanza," "Big D" and "My Heart Is So Full Of You," The Most Happy Fella is certainly a most satisfying evening.