Just how much Broadway misses the late Frank Loesser is evidenced by the handsome revival of "The Most Happy Fella" that came to the Majestic last evening. This most ambitious of his works, first seen in the spring of 1956 (it followed "My Fair Lady" by a bare two months) still has its problems, but it represents such an outpouring of talent that it almost demands to be heard at regular intervals. And this production, its first in over a decade, is in many respects the best.
It is a work that calls for genuine singers, and, praise be, this is a musical in which neither the stage nor the performers are miked, which alone makes it unique among Broadway's current musical shows. Giorgio Tozzi, whose baritone remains a rich instrument after years of operatic service, sings right to us in the role of Tony, the aging Napa Valley farmer who hungers for a wife and child, and Sharon Daniels, the soprano who plays his mail-order bride Rosabella, does the same. And so do the others. How refreshing to hear real singing voices from a stage once more!
You may remember that the big hit (this is a score with almost three dozen song numbers, or thrice the content of the average musical) was "Standing on the Corner," originally written for "Guys and Dolls." And it so happens that this and such other lively pieces as "Big D," "I Like Everybody" and "Abbondanza," some of them introducing rousing dance interludes, provide the evening's happiest moments, along with a few tender and simple musical expressions on the order of "Joey, Joey, Joey" and "Somebody, Somewhere."
But you'll also recall that Loesser, who provided his own book as well as the lyrics and music, was dealing with Sidney Howard's 1924-25 drama "They Knew What They Wanted," and it is the more dramatic aspects of the story that contrarily give the musical its least appeal. At these junctures Loesser, while always composing with intelligence and a sound dramatic sense, falls back too often on 19th century operatic devices, and the effect is almost invariably stale. And the unfortunate Tozzi, already burdened by the tale with one leg in a cast, is further saddled with most of this musical fustian. He's an extremely winning Tony, actually, but he can't surmount the heavy, creaking dramatic strokes of the play and the music employed to illustrate these moments. Even the title song, meant to be jaunty, sounds more like wishful thinking than true high spirits.
Sharon Daniels, a somewhat stiff actress with a pleasant voice, suffers less as Rosabella - she is given a couple of agreeable ballads - but is also ground down by the book eventually. And the Joey, though well sung and adequately set forth in other respects by Richard Muenz, is a rather lost soul in the enterprise, with little more than the strains of "Joey, Joey, Joey" to tag along like wisps of emotion.
As a result of all this, the comedy lovers, Cleo and Herman, come off better than the main pair - she with her opening "Ooh! My Feet!," he with his "I Like Everybody," and the two of them with "Big D." The parts are cliches, but they spark the show in bright performances by Luisa Flaningham and Dennis Waring. And a word for Giuseppe, Pasquale and Ciccio, the trio of chefs who, in the full throats of Gene Varrone, Darren Nimnicht and Franco Spotto, raise the roof with "Abbondanza." Adrienne Leonetti is good in the unattractive role of Tony's resentful sister Marie.
Of course, there are many telling sentimental exchanges throughout the evening - Tony's and Rosabella's "Happy to Make Our Acquaintance" is one such - and one must respect the extent to which Loesser involved himself in a music drama, even though the end result is uneven.
The production, designed by Douglas W. Schmidt, costumed by Nancy Potts and lighted by Gilbert V. Helmsley Jr., is lovely to look at. Jack O'Brien has directed it with a sure hand, and Gabriele Daniele has created several delightful dance sequences, borrowing liberally from De Mille, and who better for a show of this kind?
There is sufficient energy and imagination at work in "The Most Happy Fella," along with spirited singing and dancing, to make the evening worth any theatergoer's while. Even at its most doubtful, it's superior to the average Broadway musical.
No one needs to repeat that we are embarking upon a whole Broadway season of classical musical revivals, yet some seem more likely candidates for resuscitation than others. On the face of it, Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, despite a respectacle run of about two years in the mid '50s would scarcely have seemed the fella most likely. And so it proved, last night, back in town after more than 20 years at the Majestic Theater.
This was probably Loesser's most personal musical - he wrote the book, the music and the lyrics, and in style it stands rather outside his main work which ranged from his first complete song, Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition, to his masterpiece of musical theater, Guys and Dolls.
The Most Happy Fella is a sort of Broadway opera, and a more than unusually weird example of that always strange genre. Indeed, if we discount works by Gian-Carlo Menotti, such as The Consul, this can be seen, or heard, as the first Broadway opera since Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.
It is clearly then no coincidence that this new staging has been produced in association with the Michigan Opera Theater, and the producer and director, Sherwin M. Goldman and Jack O'Brien, also fulfilled these same roles in the glowingly successful Broadway production of Porgy and Bess a few seasons back.
But this Fella ain't no Porgy. Loesser took his story from Sidney Howard's soft-core melodrama about an elderly grape-grower in California's Napa Valley, who falls in love at first sight with a San Francisco waitress, and with a little deception - he sends her a photo of his young manager - wins her hand by mail.
She eventually falls in love with the old man, but, unluckily had earlier become pregnant by the manager. It is, as Howard admitted, basically the story of Paolo and Francesca, but Howard fixed it up with a happy ending. Loesser stays moderately close to the play but very sensibly takes out all of the earlier political material.
His very ambitious score ranges from show business to opera. Loesser always denied its operatic pretensions - calling it simply "a musical with a lot of music" - but most of that music, in its plangent and original Don Walker orchestrations, does have an operatic air to it.
Unfortunately it is bad opera, because the score, except in a few sprightly moments such as the Big D number when the real Frank Loesser was forced to stand up, is self-conscious and sentimental. A mixture of poor Puccini and inferior diet-cola. If one had wanted to have gone to an opera rather than a musical, one presumably would have gone to an opera.
If the music is disappointing, then the lyrics are insupportably banal. Most of them are one consonant rhyming couplets of a childishness that grates on the mind like chalk on slate. This is all the more peculiar as Loesser's lyrics in both Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business proved supple and superior. Here, in this operatic jaunt, one fears he might have thought he was creating art, and over-reacted accordingly.
The present production is not perhaps as lavish as the original, although Douglas W. Schmidt's adroitly simple scenery does seem to pay homage to Jo Mielziner, the first designer, and the costumes by Nancy Potts and the lighting by Gilbert Hemsley, Jr., pick up neatly on time, place and period.
Jack O'Brien's smooth staging clearly shows the presence of an old and experienced operatic hand, and he has cleverly incorporated Graciela Daniele's bright choreography - in which Dean Badolato is a stand-out - into the show's fabric.
The part of Tony is an attractive one for an operatic bass-baritone. On Broadway it was first played by the Met's Robert Weede, in London, Covent Garden's Inia Te Wiata took the role. Now it has fallen to Giorgio Tozzi, and he gives it with just the right sense of radiant goodness. Tony has to be good, honest and likeable, without - and this is the difficulty - for one minute being prissy or sanctimonious. He has to have the milk of human kindness but also Palermo-born blood.
Tozzi is fine, and has a beautiful partner in the singing actress Sharon Daniels, who captures the battered decency of the little waitress to perfection. It is all in all an exceptionally well cast show, with Louisa Flaningam and Dennis Warning playing zestfully the Broadway-style second bananas to the operatic leads, and Richard Muenz stalwart, stiff and handsome as the young manager.
The Most Happy Fella hardly leaves me the most happy critic - yet the revival is handsomely staged and could appeal to theatergoers in search of tearjerker romance and music heavy on the violins. And, after all, a lot of theatergoers are.
Deep in the second act of "The Most Happy Fella," which opened last night at the Majestic Theater, the young mail-order bride confesses her love to the aged vineyard owner whom she has married. The two embrace and sing the duet, "My Heart Is So Full of You." The magnificent voice of Giorgio Tozzi fills the stage, and Sharon Daniels is his equal partner. For a moment there is not only music, but real emotion in the theater, but it is an isolated moment in a show that, for all its sentiment, seems to be short on feeling.
There are many pleasures in this revival of "The Most Happy Fella," beginning with the singing, especially by Mr. Tozzi, and closely followed by Frank Loesser's lavish score. However, song must come from story, and the fact is that Mr. Loesser's book has a structure that is almost as shaky as Douglas W. Schmidt's fragile-looking scenery. The sentimentality of the story is no surprise. Even in 1956, when the show first opened on Broadway, it was the music that carried the day.
Tony, the vineyard owner meets a pretty waitress, and courts her through the mail, deceitfully sending her a picture, or a "pitch" as he says in broken English, of his handsome foreman, Joe, instead of one of himself. She arrives at his home, marries Tony in a pique, and sleeps one night with the foreman. By the beginning of the second act, Tony and his "Rosabella" are in love, but toward the end of the evening, a baby is on the way. Tony thunders his anger. The outcome is predictable, and the play is filled with carefully planted contrivances, such as a pistol: a workman shoots it aimlessly, in order to inform us that it is in his possession, and ready for Tony's use.
Mr. Loesser drew his book from Sidney Howard's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "They Knew What They Wanted," updating the show from the 20's to the 30's. This is a 30's without a sense of period, although there is a vaguely Art Deco setting in the cafe where Rosabella originally works.
The atmosphere is half-Italian, half-hoedown, representing the plot and the subplot. Tony's backyard is teeming with friends stomping and shouting - Graciela Daniele's choreography seems to specialize in cartwheels and handstands - and the members of the chorus smile so hard it must hurt their cheeks. There is an overemphasis in much of the acting. For example, Adrienne Leonetti plays Tony's jealous sister as if she were doing "Medea" - from the furrowed-brow school of acting. In too-studied contrast, Louisa Flaningam plays Rosabella's comic relief friend without relief - more Annie Oakley than Ado Annie.
Mr. O'Brian has cast the show with singers, many of them with opera experience. Richard Muenz is particularly strong as Joe. He has a powerful voice and an effectively casual manner. He is a leathery, rather than a cleancut, cowboy. Miss Daniels is a better singer than actress; her Rosabella lacks warmth. We miss the tentativeness that should be a part of her character.
Mr. Tozzi is a musical by himself. As a singer, he radiates so much charm and conviction that it carries over into his dramatic scenes. He is fine in his big numbers, such as the joyous title song, and also in sidelong moments. As the young people leap across the stage (one of Miss Daniele's more graceful dance numbers) he sings the refrain "Old people gotta," a lament for his own loss of youth. He is quietly and tenderly moving. The one demurrer about Mr. Tozzi's characterization is not his fault; it is his fractured English, which seems to vanish in song and return heavily in speech. In any case, a little of it goes too long a way.
There are more than 40 songs in "The Most Happy Fella," including the exuberant "Big D" and "Standing on the Corner," the ballad "Somebody, Somewhere," the catchy "Abbondanza," which is probably sung at Italian weddings, and "Joey, Joey, Joey," with its tumbleweed rhythm. Watching this revival of "The Most Happy Fella" is mostly a listening experience.