When "The Most Happy Fella" opened on Broadway in 1956, there was much to-do over the sheer amount of music in the score. The dreaded word "opera" was heard.
One of the many impressive things about this revival is the clear sense it gives that Frank Loesser's work is pure musical theater.
Loesser adapted Sidney Howard's play about an Italian immigrant who owns a Napa Valley vineyard. He sends his handsome foreman's picture to a waitress with whom he fell in love in San Francisco. She comes to marry him and discovers the deception.
Had the story been written a century earlier - and in Italy - it might have ended as tragically as "Cavalleria Rusticana." But this is America, where we believe in happy endings.
The key thing is that the story is as emotion-laden as an opera. In many musicals, the dialogue barely simmers, the music boils and you're always conscious of the disparity between the two. In "The Most Happy Fella," the characters are always on the verge of boiling over, which is why music grows so naturally out of the situations.
One of the things that contributed to the operatic feeling of the original production was its musical scale. In her program note for this revival, Jo Sullivan, the original Rosabella, recalls that Loesser posted a sign in the rehearsal room: Loud Is Good.
In part, that was necessitated by the original orchestra, which had 35 pieces. This production uses a two-piano adaptation Loesser supervised. Because the singers do not have to combat 35 instruments, they can sing quietly, intimately, which makes the characters more poignant, their plights deeply moving. My wife and I went through a lot of Kleenex. I confess, I even cried during "Standing on the Corner," hardly on of the emotional highpoints of the piece, simply because of the elegance of its three-part harmony.
Spiro Malas, who plays the title character, has an ungainly, palooka look that is just right for Tony. He also has a powerful bass voice he reins in hauntingly. When this grand instrument is reduced to a hush, the emotional impact is intense.
As the mail-order bride, Sophie Hayden has a toughness that makes the character more plausible than she is when played as an aging ingenue. Her touching soprano voice reminds us there is a vulnerable creature beneath the hardened exterior.
Charles Pistone, who plays Joe, the foreman whose pictures lures Rosabella to Napa, has a jowly look that makes him believably working-class. He too is a consummate musician, whose quiet singing heightens the sensuousness of a song like "Don't Cry."
Scott Waara is simply sensational as Herman, and I'm sure it was the purity of his tenor voice that contributed to the unexpectedly emotional impact of "Standing on the Corner." As his fellow refugee from Dallas ("Big D"), Liz Larsen has a wonderful Broadway brassiness it's a pleasure to hear.
Tad Ingram is a superb charactor actor who invests everything he sings with incredible vivacity. Claudia Catania sings beautifully in the thankless role of Tony's sister. The trio of comic Italian tenors - Mark Lotito, Buddy Crutchfield and Bill Nabel - sing thrillingly, and Lotito has expert comic timing. Tim Stella and Michael Rafter are dazzling. John Lee Beatty's sets capture the glow of a simpler America, as do Jess Goldstein's costumes.
Many musical revivals simply try to recapture the gloss of the original production. Gerald Gutierrez has rethought "Fella" with great sensitivity and intelligence. There are things to quibble over here and there, but overall this is a rhapsodic piece of theater.
You wanna feela gooda?
Frank Loesser's trend-setting, feel-good musical "The Most Happy Fella," about gently caricatured Italian-Americans amid the vineyards of California's Napa Valley, is back in town, now starring a rich and gorgeous Spiro Malas as Tony, its eponymously euphoric hero.
It opened at the Booth Theater last night in a special chamber-style, two-piano version that originated last summer at Michael Price's lively Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut.
"The Most Happy Fella" is a fascinating piece, adapted from Sidney Howard's 1924 Pulitzer prize-winning tearjerker "They Knew What They Wanted." The story is of an elderly Italian-American vintner, Tony, who has gotten rich through Prohibition, and his mail-order bride, whom he calls Rosabella. Rosabella is not quite mail-order - for Tony first saw her serving as a waitress in a San Francisco cafe.
They wrote to one another, and Tony proposed marriage. But when it came to exchanging photographs, Tony, realizing that he was old and ugly, deceptively sent a picture of his young and handsome foreman, Joe.
So when she arrives for the marriage she is expecting Joe, a situation complicated by Tony, who, when nervously rushing to meet her at the train station, turns his truck over and is seriously injured. The marriage goes through - to Rosabella's stoic despair - but in her misery she has a brief fling with Joe.
As the warm-hearted Tony slowly recovers, Rosabella finds herself really falling in love with him. But then she discovers she is pregnant with Joe's child, and to save Tony pain she resolves to leave. Don't worry. It all works out.
The present duo-piano arrangement by Robert Page was not merely sanctioned by the composer but apparently made under Loesser's personal supervision. A note in the program by Loesser's widow, Jo Sullivan, the first Rosabella, writes that "he had a real desire to keep the show small, for a small or off-Broadway theater. That's why he also wrote a version with music arranged for two pianos."
So the version is kosher. But personally, while the unamplified voices cutting through the almost transparent musical accompaniment let the score's generic lyricism come through, I still think that overall the lack of an orchestra is a serious loss.
And, in this subjective mood, I must also add that "The Most Happy Fella" has never been one of my favorite Loesser musicals.
As for the present production, neatly staged by Gerald Gutierrez, with modest but effective settings by John Lee Beatty and costumes by Jess Goldstein, together with lively choreography by Liza Gennaro, it is modest but effective, with many of the performances proving absolutely top-drawer.
The commanding performance comes from Spiro Malas as Tony - we have known him as a most reliable operatic bass with the Metropolitan Opera, but here he is perhaps better than he has ever been at the Met. The voice is fine, but the characterization, deep-etched and true, seems perfect. This portrayal by itself would probably justify the revival transfer.
Nor is Malas' the only happy performance. Sophie Hayden makes a most touching figure of Rosabella, the two juveniles Liz Larsen and Scott Waara are first-rate, and the comic-operatic trio of Tony's helpers, Mark Lotito with Buddy Crutchfield and Bill Nabel, stop the show at their every opportunity.
The miniaturization of Broadway scores is, as we have noted before, a contemporary trend. However, a chamber version in a Broadway house - suggesting Broadway expectations - may be resented by some. You are warned. You are also advised that for what it is, this new-look "The Most Happy Fella" is perfectly fine - depending, of course, on just how much you liked the old-look "The Most Happy Fella."
Nostalgia alone does not explain why Americans still adore Broadway musicals of the 1940's and 50's. The appeal of these shows is much plainer than that. Men and women step forward and express their most primal desires in simple poetry and unforgettable melodies: I want this. I must go there. I love you.
These feelings, which are no less profound for being universal, will never go out of fashion, and neither will the musicals containing them if they are as powerfully acted, sung and staged as the revival of Frank Loesser's 1956 musical, "The Most Happy Fella," which opened at the Booth Theater last night. As directed by Gerald Gutierrez and performed by a cast led by Spiro Malas and Sophie Hayden, this work can hold its own with "Carousel" and "The Music Man" on the hit parade of Broadway romantic classics of the golden Rodgers and Hammerstein era. It is so stirring that even as your head tells you that you cannot possibly be moved by its preposterously simple love story of a middle-aged immigrant Napa Valley grape farmer of the 1920's and his young mail-order bride, the rest of you is tugged right in.
"The Most Happy Fella" has not always exerted such a tidal pull. From its successful original production, which was upstaged by the arrival of "My Fair Lady" two months earlier, through the last New York revival at the City Opera this season, the show has usually been staged as a majestic quasi-opera, reflecting the length of its score (more than 30 numbers) and the Puccini-isms of some of its lusher passages. This time Mr. Gutierrez strips away the theatrical grandiosity and corn by making a few textual trims, by replacing the original 35-piece orchestra with a simple, two-piano accompaniment Loesser commissioned but never used, and more important, by insisting on the sort of adult, honest acting and singing that one almost never finds in Broadway musical revivals (let alone at the opera). In other words, the director bets that the material itself -- the integrity of its emotions and the voluminous musical beauty with which those emotions are expressed -- will carry the evening without embellishment. Thanks to the intimacy of the Booth, even the deadening filter of electronic amplification is virtually eliminated as Mr. Gutierrez pitches his cast forward on a thrust stage.
The bet pays off with a nonstop surge of passion, much of which flows from the sterling and unorthodox lead performances. Mr. Malas could not be a less likely romantic hero. As the title role of Tony demands, he is not young, not good looking, not smart, not fluent in English and for much of the show not ambulatory. (A road accident lands him in a wheelchair.) But Mr. Malas, an opera baritone whose thick body and large peasant features suggest a lifetime of both hard knocks and gargantuan appetites, immediately wins us over, not with a fat man's musical-comedy jolliness but with the plaintive hunger and deep humility in his sweet, timid hopes for happiness with Rosabella, the San Francisco waitress whom he courts by letter. When he later must overcome some formidable obstacles to win his bride's love, Mr. Malas uses his voice as a caress, playing down its power in favor of its tenderness, until finally the audience, too, is seduced by this unexpected Romeo.
Ms. Hayden, whose warm soprano has an affecting undercurrent of sadness, is his ideal match. She is not the standard, girlish ingenue usually cast in roles like Rosabella but a woman who actually looks like the less-than-virginal, greasy-spoon waitress she is when Tony meets her. She's attractive but not daintily so, and in the opening scene she sings with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Like Mr. Malas, she is also transformed inexorably by affection, in her case from a broke and abandoned pickup to an unselfish lover. The songs in which Tony and Rosabella exchange lessons in English and Italian ("Happy to Make Your Acquaintance" and "How Beautiful the Days") become gripping dramatizations of two lost souls breaking a psychological rather than merely a language barrier. When the floodgates finally open on a duet that is Loesser's answer to "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" (its crippled hero included), the entire house seems to embrace the two leads as ecstatically as they at last enfold each other.
"My heart is so full of you, there is no room for anything more," sings Ms. Hayden at that point. It is the measure of this production's success that one is thrilled rather than embarrassed by songs in which lovers sing nakedly of being "warm all over" and "wanting to be wanted, needing to be needed," and that Loesser's childlike vulnerability seems no less authentic than the Tin Pan Alley urbanity of his "Guys and Dolls." Even so, this staging does not shortchange the score's conventional show-biz turns, starting with the pop harmonizing and incipient soft-shoe of "Standin' on the Corner." The dazzling Liz Larsen and Scott Waara, as the show's archetypal comic couple (indeed, undisguised retreads of Ado Annie and Will Parker), are as unhackneyed as Mr. Malas and Ms. Hayden, so sexy and funny and real they obscure their roles' vaudeville roots. They and the rousing chorus of singers and dancers ambush the second act with the human stampede Liza Gennaro has choreographed for "Big D."
Much of the Broadway showmanship of Mr. Gutierrez's "Fella" has been brought to a higher gloss since this production was first seen at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut last summer. (The only glaring exception is Claudia Catania's wrong-note performance as Tony's meddling sister, Marie.) The trio of juggling and harmonizing chefs (Buddy Crutchfield, Bill Nabel and Mark Lotito) remains a delight, as, in a different key, does the robust voice of Charles Pistone as Joe, the dark Lothario of the piece. John Lee Beatty's sets, Jess Goldstein's costumes and Craig Miller's lighting offer a lovely blend of Tuscan-hued vineyard landscapes and 20's working-class fashions. For a show that places its first priority on the interior of its characters, this "Fella" never neglects the visual, moving delicately from the bleak winter of its lovers' first encounter to a radiant summer of harvest and regeneration.
Sure, one does miss the musical colors of the haunting Don Walker orchestrations at first; the twin pianos that usurp them sound more out of place in a Broadway house than they did at Goodspeed. But I must confess that when I went home after the performance and put on the exemplary 1956 cast album, a boon companion for most of my theatergoing life, it seemed for the first time a little heavy, a little hollow. Or is it just that the new "Most Happy Fella" leaves one's heart so full that there is no room for anything more?