I would guess that for every thousand productions of "Guys and Dolls", there might be one of "The Most Happy Fella". I fear that Frank Loesser's 1956 musical about an unlikely romance between an older man and a younger woman, set in the Napa valley wine country, is in danger of being consigned to the theatre history section, where groundbreaking, much admired shows are enshrined but never seen. Just how big a loss that would be is abundantly clear from this gorgeously produced, beautifully performed and expertly directed production. This is a show with real character, not just good characters, and a genuinely satisfying blend of lyricism and dramatic authenticity. It's entertaining, touching, vivacious and charming.
As Tony, an older man whose only unrealized dream is to find a wife, Julian Patrick has both the operatic voice and the acting expertise. He finds a nice balance between the larger than life gusto of the man and the insecurity and frailty that makes him so sympathetic and human. From his opening number we understand that this man is plain but not simple, passionate for all his inhibitions, emotional and realistic. He's an optimist with a deep awareness of the transitory nature of life and love. And he's a most happy fella. I especially like the way Mr. Patrick keeps his romantic longings strong and sweet, without ever letting them become sentimental.
In the play's key action, Tony substitutes a picture of his handsome young friend Joe for one of himself, in a letter proposing marriage to Rosabella, a young waitress he's seen only once. Cheyenne Jackson is every inch the tall, dark and handsome young man. He also has a fine, strong voice which is showcased in "Joey, Joey, Joey". As Rosabella, Patti Cohenour brings all of her Broadway experience to creating a rather plain, hopeful, naïve woman who emerges into a much more complicated adult world. Believable as a common waitress, she is equally convincing as the princess of Tony's eye. When she finds herself drawn to Joe on the very day she's married to Tony, we understand how his beauty and youth and promise seduces her. In the careful revelation of her own doubts and inadequacies, we also see how the strengths of Tony's character bind her to him. Her singing voice is simply glorious, one of those instruments unique to the musical theatre, and perfect for this melodic, yearning score.
Supporting those central roles, this production adds terrific performances from Tom Plotkin as Herman, an irrepressible, energetic bundle of hormones and mischief. Lisa Estridge-Gray makes an equally strong contribution in the even more comedic role of Cleo. Her excellent timing and perfect comic delivery is a grace note to the show's more serious concerns.
Director David Bennett maintains a perfect balance between those lighter, more evanescent elements and the strikingly serious drama at the show's center. The pace is brisk and light-handed, but the real matters of heart are never slighted. Even the signature song "Standing on the Corner" is given just enough of a rough edge to avoid it being too "Fifties", too harmonic and smooth, and as a result it seems much less like a familiar pop song from "Your Hit Parade" than a spontaneous moment emerging from the action. This director is so faithful to the truth of both style and drama that nothing ever seems contrived or artificial, and the result is convincing and moving.
The physical production is equal to the performances. In particular, James Fouchard brings the same sort of craftsmanship and attention to detail to his well-painted drops as the actors bring to their roles. Tom Sturge's lighting design keeps everything bright and hopeful, at the same time that it softens and warms with the action. Costumes by Lynda Salsbury are smartly imagined and well realized. Particular credit goes to Beth Berkeley for a sound design that keeps every word clear and the balance between music and voices just right. Finally, choreographer Jody Ripplinger keeps the stage in constant, good humored motion equal to the solid musical direction of W. Brent Sawyer.
This production of "The Most Happy Fella" is one of those wonderful surprises where not only is the show much better than you expect, but gratifying in ways you never would have thought possible. Yes, there are many elements in this show that belong to a particular period of our history, but it seems much less dated to me than many shows only ten or fifteen years old. At the center, this is the story of two people who learn to accept each other for all their flaws, and in spite of their own illusions. That seems to me like a premise that will remain relevant for some time to come, especially when it's set to such gracious and memorable music.
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