If Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella lacks the bubbly perfection of his Guys and Dolls, and the razor-sharp fizz of his How To Succeed..., its unashamedly romantic score makes it one of the most emotionally moving musicals of all time.
Based on Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted, ...Fella tells of Tony, an aging Napa Valley vintner who proposes by mail to a younger waitress by sending her a photograph of his handsome foreman Joey. When the waitress, whom Tony has nicknamed "Rosabella," arrives and discovers the deception, she decides to marry Tony anyway, eventually falling in love with him despite her one-night affair with Joey.
Although The Most Happy Fella has sometimes been labeled a mass of manipulative sentiment, in the right hands Loesser's uncompromising portrait of loneliness and need can be a startling, gut-wrenching experience. And his score is without peer, a ravishing tour-de-force that runs the gamut from pure Broadway razzmatazz to heart-stopping operatic romance. It is an ambitious choice for any company - it requires a cast of vocally superior singing actors and a production that carefully balances the light and dark with a delicate, but firm, point of view. Even the New York City Opera had a rough time of it with their attempt in 1991.
While earnest in its desire to please, Peter Flint's production at St. Bart's Player's seemed far too willing to rely on the considerable vocal resources of its cast instead of exploring the darker nuances that simmer just below the surface. Would that that were enough, but alas, tentative acting and dreadful, amateurish choreography stopped the show dead in its tracks - despite some gorgeous singing and a superlative production design. Actually the evening's strongest assets - Bryan Higgason's burnt umber and ochre-toned sets; Sara Jablon's cream, rust, and yellow costumes; and Joshua Epstein's honeyed-hued lighting - gave the show the sophistication that nearly every other aspect of the production lacked.
Ronald Kross sang Tony with force, but constant, none-too-subtle glances at the conductor for his musical cues proved a huge distraction in an otherwise competent performance. Merrill Vaughn made a lovely Rosabella, her creamy soprano perfectly suited to the role. If she was perhaps a trifle mature, it worked to make her character more vulnerable, and thus believable. As the restless Joey, Don Simmons had the looks and the voice if not the brooding inner life that makes this character compelling. Of all the cast, Courtney Stanford understood most what was needed and gave it everything she had as Rosabella's friend Cleo. Equally as lively, Scott Kerstetter was all goofy charm as Cleo's romantic interest, the affable ranch hand Herman.
The Most Happy Fella is a true classic that deserves more recognition than it generally gets, and St. Bart's is to be commended for their attempt. It is always more admirable to stumble with a challenge than to fly with a sure thing. After all, how many times can even the blue-hairs sit through Mame?
(Also featuring Susan Boskoff, Daniel Burke, Vanessa Burke, Joyce Deyo, Jennifer Dzama, Rich Fisher, Bradford Harlan, Marla Karoliolios, Robert LaGravinese, Matt Levine, Brett Lowell, Kristy Lynch, Suzanne Melia, Kevin Moss, Richard Raduns, Sharon Schiller, Kathy Joanne Warner, Susan Weinman, Naomi Wische, Zach Wobensmith.)
Book: 2 Music: 2 Lyrics: 2
Musical Direction: 1
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita