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Review Roundup: Encores! THE MOST HAPPY FELLA - All the Reviews!

The New York City Center Encores! production of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella opened earlier this week on April 2. The production stars Laura Benanti, Shuler Hensley, Cheyenne Jackson,Heidi Blickenstaff, Brian Cali, Bradley Dean, Zachary James, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Jessica Molaskey and Kevin Vortmann. The Most Happy Fella is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, with music direction by Rob Berman. The production will run until April 6th.

The Most Happy Fella, Frank Loesser's most ambitious and romantic musical, tells the heart-stopping story of a love triangle between an aging Napa Valley farmer (Shuler Hensley), a young waitress (Laura Benanti) and a handsome, restless ranch hand (Cheyenne Jackson). It is based on the play They Knew What They Wanted by Sidney Howard, with a book, music and lyrics by Loesser. The score displays an astonishing range -ardent operatic numbers stand side by side with Broadway show-stoppers - and includes "Somebody Somewhere," "My Heart Is So Full of You," "Big D" and "Standing on the Corner." It opened at the Imperial Theatre on May 3, 1956 and ran for 676 performances.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: "As sung by a cast led by Shuler Hensley and Laura Benanti in their richest work to date, and matched by an orchestra that turns thought into music, "The Most Happy Fella" is an unabashed hymn of hope to fresh starts and quickened feelings...There are no complaints to be made on that count regarding Mr. Nicholaw's production. Playing a life-calloused American waitress and the older but more innocent Italian vineyard owner who falls in love with her, Ms. Benanti and Mr. Hensley turn in the kind of expertly sung, fluidly emotional performances that make you feel you've crawled into their characters' minds...That show transferred to Broadway. The prospects of "Fella" doing so seem remote. Though it tells a simple story, the emotions it churns up are as mixed, contradictory and ineffable as those we live with every day. Such complexity rarely thrives in the toy land of Broadway. In other words, musical-loving adults with open hearts should do their best to make it to City Center before this glorious "Fella" leaves town on Sunday."

David Finkle, The Huffington Post: "Laura Benanti, who has yet to demonstrate from a local stage that she can do any wrong, shows off a pure soprano she's previously hidden. She makes glowing impressions of Rosabella's arias...And a nod held for several seconds director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw's way. It's barely two weeks since he opened Disney's lavish Aladdin 13 blocks south, and here he is with another large-cast production -- during which no one carries the script in a binder as used to be the Encores! series norm. Has the guy slept in the past month? If he hasn't, he's still in good form with a Most Happy Fella that's in good enough form to reward fans with an acceptable look and listen."

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: "Encores! does Loesser justice with a 38-member orchestra. There are just as many people in the cast, with leads Laura Benanti, Shuler Hensley, Cheyenne Jackson and Heidi Blickenstaff in top form. Their charm is so high that it obscures the story's "ick" factor: Set in 1927 Napa Valley, it concerns a plain-looking, heavily accented Italian vineyard owner (Hensley) who falls for a much younger waitress (Benanti). The wall-to-wall score - the musical's almost sung through - is vintage Broadway. Raucous numbers like "Big D," staged with infectious exuberance by Casey Nicholaw, are obvious crowd-pleasers. But it's the ballads ("Warm All Over," "My Heart Is So Full of You") that soar to musical-theater heaven. You just don't want the show to end.

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: "Like a great bottle of wine, the vineyard-set musical "The Most Happy Fella" is robust, complex and palate-pleasing. Most happily, those grace notes shine through in the joyful and exuberant staging of the Encores! show running through the weekend. Go, have a pour. This Broadway season every new dramatic musical has struggled to come up with fully captivating stories or songs - or both. Frank Loesser's nearly sung-through 1956 classic shows why the toil is worth the effort: When a musical clicks, it transports you."

Jesse Green, Vulture: "After seeing the Encores! staged concert production last night, perhaps the last opportunity for decades to hear the show live in its nearly full glory, I cannot imagine what we panelists were weaseling about. Define the terms how you will: The Most Happy Fella is one of the greatest musicals ever. Or one of the greatest operas. Hell, it's just great. At its best, as in this number, the Encores! production, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, follows with perfect naturalness the curves of Loesser's writing. The principals' acting - in music and words - is especially strong. Shuler Hensley is younger and handsomer than you might expect of a Tony, which allows him to bring out, more interestingly, the feelings of worthlessness instilled in him by his sister and his own sense of outsiderness. Cheyenne Jackson is a gimme for Joe, and offers enough louche detail (a lip-lick here, a cocked brow there) to fill in the outline of a figure who's mostly a catalyst. (He sings "Joey, Joey, Joey" and his other numbers beautifully.) As Cleo, Heidi Blickenstaff provides all the musical comedy verve you could ask for; her "Big D," belted with the delightful Jay Armstrong Johnson as her dopey boyfriend Herman, is a smile-jerking highlight. But it's Laura Benanti, as Rosabella, who makes the most definitive case for her character, in the process changing the focus of the drama."

Matt Windman, AMNewYork: "The casting of Hensley and Benanti is questionable, as Hensley looks rather young and frail for Tony and Benanti is not young enough for Rosabella, and the characters' age difference is a central conflict. And while Hensley has a fine voice, it lacks the operatic edge required for the score. Even so, their acting is exquisite throughout. The rest of the cast is superb, particularly Heidi Blickenstaff and Jay Armstrong Johnson as the secondary romantic couple. They possess that perfect blend of cute and sexy. Cheyenne Jackson also shines as Joey, as does Jessica Molaskey as Tony's overprotective sister."

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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