Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Encores! Presents The Most Happy Fella

Once again Encores! at City Center demonstrates that New York is heaven for all musical theater buffs.  Encores! is dedicated to restaging little-seen shows with top-notch casts and the finest orchestra performing on Broadway.  The creative minds behind the series are Artistic Director Jack Viertel and Music Director Rob Berman, who have done a superb job of mounting these shows since 1994.

The first show of the season was the delightful Little Me, which was nearly incandescent in its brilliance.  Could Encores! we wondered, maintain this high level of quality?

Well, with The Most Happy Fella, they have succeeded beyond wildest expectations.  Fella is everything a Broadway musical should be: tuneful, funny, dramatically sound and, ultimately, moving.  If Little Me was a diverting romp, Fella is a show that will stay with the viewer for years to come.  I cannot recommend it enough.

The original Broadway production of The Most Happy Fella premiered in 1956, with book, music, and lyrics by Frank Loesser (1910-1969).  It was quite unusual for the time, in that the show did not conform to the standard Broadway musical template – it was more dramatic than comedic, most of the dialogue was sung, and the show dealt with subject matter usually seen in operas rather than musicals.  The story revolved around an older man romancing younger woman, and was based on the play They Knew What They Wanted by Sidney Howard (1891-1939). Despite its lack of convention, the original production was a hit, running for 14 months.  (One interesting side-note, the original show was funded by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz; in fact, her television counterpart went to the show in an episode of I Love Lucy.  Cross marketing is nothing new!)

The Most Happy Fella has narrative conventions somewhat similar to Cyrano.  In San Francisco of 1927, Italian grape farmer Tony Esposito romances a beautiful, younger waitress Rosabella by letter.  When it comes time to send a photo, he instead provides a photo of the younger and more handsome Joe, the farm foreman.  Of course, Rosabella comes to the town and learns that she has been deceived.  Before she can leave, however, Tony is injured in a trucking accident and Rosabella remains to marry the injured man.

Of course, their road to happiness has many complications, including Rosabella’s intermezzo with Joe, interference from Tony’s spinster sister, and community expectations.  But rather than have these conventions resolve in a standard musical-comedy manner, the show has a great deal of dramatic heft.  The setbacks experienced by the characters are very real, and each slight hurts like a physical blow.

The cast, as is usually the case with Encores!, is a Master’s Class in musical theater. Oddly enough, the two leads, Laura Benanti (born 1979) as Rosabella, and Shuler Hensley (born 1967) as Tony, are simply serviceable.  But Cheyenne Jackson (born 1975) as Joe, is luminous.  Gifted with a beautiful voice, good looks and charisma that is palpable, it is a mystery why this fine actor/singer is not a bigger star.  Though his part is smaller, he makes an indelible impression.  It seems as if nothing in the theater is beyond his protean talent.

However, the evening really belongs to Heidi Blickenstaff (born 1971), who plays Cleo, Rosabella’s best friend.  She is a powerhouse, and she galvanizes the show.  Her number Big D (about coming from Dallas) is a showstopper that infuses the second act with verve, adrenalin, and old-fashioned show biz razzmatazz.  Sharing the number with the fetching Jay Armstrong Johnson, as her simpleminded beau, Blickenstaff takes what is already a wonderful show and brings it to a whole other level.  It’s the kind of barnstorming not seen since the days of Ethel Merman or Judy Holliday, and the experience is electrical.  Blickenstaff and Johnson reunite for another number, I Like Everybody, and, once again, the result is magic.  I have now resolved to see anything featuring the dynamic, charismatic Blickenstaff.

Musicals ultimately come down to the quality of their songs, but a show where most of the dialogue is sung presents problems in the production of standards.  But while there may be no timeless tunes on hand, there are many terrific songs.  Joey, Joey, Joey, performed by Jackson, is wonderfully ethereal.  And Standing on the Corner, with Johnson, Ryan Bauer-Walsh and Arlo Hill, is a terrific comedic treat, as is when Zachary James, Bradley Dean and Brian Cali team up for the musical numbers Abbondanza and Benvenuta

Loesser was going after something more with Fella; it is an extremely aspirational show, and even when it doesn’t work completely, it is admirably ambitious and nothing less than entertaining.  It harkens back to a time when musicals were more than an existing songbook with a loosely constructed book to hold it all together.  The production is also ambitious for Encores!, with perhaps their largest cast ever and most elaborate settings.  Once again, they prove that musical theater is one of the fine arts.

The production is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (born 1962) and it is something special, even for a series and production team that are never less than magnificent.  As with all Encores! productions, the run of the show is extremely limited, and Most Happy Fella ends April 6th.  You do not want to be one of those unhappy fellas who missed it.

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