The Most Happy Fella
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 10, 2006
In almost every way, New York City Opera's new revival of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella is a sad disappointment.
The sole department in which it does not let its audience down is the music, here in Don Walker's original orchestration, gloriously played by the lush and large (by contemporary Broadway standards) orchestra, under the baton of conductor George Manahan. Songs like "Fresno Beauties," "Young People," and "Song of a Summer Night" sound enchanting, and the key choral numbers—"Abbondanza," "Benvenuta," and "Standing on the Corner"—come off beautifully, too. It's a pleasure to hear the score played as it should be, and it's only the score that keeps this production from being an utter failure.
The Most Happy Fella, first produced on Broadway in 1956, tells the story of a shy, middle-aged Italian immigrant named Tony Esposito who owns a grape ranch in the Napa Valley and who falls in love with a pretty waitress but is too nervous to tell her himself. (He's afraid even to ask her name; he calls her "Rosabella" instead.) So he leaves her a note on the menu, along with an expensive tiepin, and asks her to write to him. A romance by mail ensues, and eventually he asks her to marry him. But when Tony's possessive sister, Marie, reminds him that he's not the young, handsome man that Rosabella is probably hoping for, he decides to send a photo of his virile foreman Joe instead.
When Rosabella arrives for the wedding, Joe—who was supposed to have left the ranch by now—is still there. Tony gets scared again and has a terrible car accident. The rest of the musical depicts the ways that Tony and Rosabella mend their relationship and, eventually, genuinely fall in love with one another. A subplot features Rosabella's pal Cleo and her romance with one of the workers at the ranch, a friendly fellow named Herman.
Director Philip Wm. McKinley seems not to have a clue as to how to stage this show. Loesser argued over and over again (this is in the program, but I've read it elsewhere) that The Most Happy Fella is not an opera, but simply a musical comedy with a great deal of music in it. But McKinley seems determined to prove that an opera house is where this sweetly romantic tale belongs. He's restored two "arias" sung by Marie; though interesting as trivia, these cut songs demonstrate nothing but the efficacy of their excision 50 years ago, stopping the story dead in its tracks both times and, to the extent that they reveal anything about the woman that sings them, succeeding only in making her seem creepy.
McKinley has, at the same time, found himself apparently defeated by the width of the opera house stage. Intimate actions—girlfriends engaging in small talk or confiding in one another; a wife sharing a tender or romantic moment with her husband—are violated with alarming consistency, with the affected parties standing ten or more feet away from one another; there's no closeness and practically no contact, physical or otherwise.
This is a very straightforward show, but McKinley chooses to ignore most of what Loesser's script instructs him and his actors to do. In the first scene, a restaurant cashier hits on our heroine telling her smugly that lots of waitresses are "just begging to date a guy in my position." Her reply is, "A guy in your position is just begging for something"—which makes sense (and is funny) because he's just bent over to pick something up from the floor. Except here, the cashier doesn't bend over until she's almost finished with the line, spoiling the sense (and the joke). This kind of thing happens over and over again in this Most Happy Fella.
With casting consultant Mark Simon, McKinley has populated the show pretty much exclusively with performers from the world of the Broadway musical (only two of the principals, Andrew Drost and Matthew Surapine, have opera credits, and they're both quite good here, actually). This strategy ought to work, but it doesn't: although several of these folks have the chops to do their roles well and sing them nicely (Lisa Vroman as Rosabella, Karen Murphy as Marie, John Scherer as Herman), without the strong guiding hand that will establish relationships among the characters, their work flounders. Leah Hocking is entirely out of her depth as Cleo, Rosabella's earthy best friend, and Ivan Hernandez can't manage either of Joe's main songs. Meanwhile, the NYCO chorus plays the "neighbors and the neighbors' neighbors" but they never convince us that they're people who might live or work in a Napa Valley vineyard; in the misconceived second act opener "Fresno Beauties" (which should be sung by a male chorus, but here is sung by members of both sexes) they seem like nothing so much as refugees from a street scene in a bad Italian opera.
Most problematic, though, is Paul Sorvino's disastrous attempt at the play's leading role of Tony. Sorvino, a good actor, seems unable to create any sort of effective characterization here, and his singing voice is thin and reedy. Instead of delivering a vigorous but insecure romantic he musters only a snivelling, dottering old man.
Peggy Hickey's choreography is unimaginative and, in at least one case, unsuited to the characters and story (she has an impromptu spring dance among the vineyard workers feature complicated ballet choreography; ridiculous). I thought I recognized Michael Anania's sets from the last NYCO Most Happy Fella (I was right); they're as ugly now as they were then, and out of place in McKinley's off-kilter conception of the piece, to boot. Ann Hould Ward's costumes are garish and inappropriate.
It's hard to understand how a revival of something as tried-and-true as this piece could go so far and badly off course. It's nice to have a lot of people on stage, and it's truly gratifying to hear this score played beautifully and without amplification. But I'd trade all of that for authentic heart and emotion; a recent revival of The Most Happy Fella by the modest Brooklyn theatre company Gallery Players, with just piano accompaniment, outclassed this production in every other way.