10 April 2014

'The Most Happy Fella'

I haven’t gone to a lot of Encores! shows over the years, but all of a sudden, they’re offering some that interest me for various reasons.  Last July, I saw Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock because I’d read about it, principally in John Houseman’s 1972 autobiography, Run-Through, but had never seen it.  (I reported on that performance on ROT on 1 August.) This spring, Encores! is presenting two more shows I’ve never seen before.  The second one, coming up in May, is 1960’s Irma La Douce, which I only know from the non-musical movie; but the first one, which Diana, my frequent theater companion, and I saw on Wednesday evening, 2 April, at the New York City Center on West 55th Street, was Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, which ran for 676 performances at the Imperial and Broadway Theatres in 1956-57.  I’d heard much of the score over the years, but I’d never seen a production of the musical (which premièred just about the time I was starting to see Broadway shows in New York).

Encores! Great American Musicals In Concert began at City Center, established in 1943 as the city’s first performing arts center, in 1994 with the mission of presenting the scores of Broadway musicals that are seldom heard.  (Encores! Off Center, a spin-off series for Off-Broadway musicals, began in 2013; Cradle was from the first season of that series.)  Since then, it has won several theater awards for its concert presentations, including a Tony for Excellence in Theatre in 2000.  A number of the performances have resulted in cast recordings and several productions have transferred to Broadway, such as a 2010 revival of Burton Lane, “Yip” Harburg, and Fred Saidy’s Finian’s Rainbow and the still-running 1996 presentation of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1975 musical Chicago.  (Also still playing on Broadway since October 2013 is After Midnight, a jazz revue with text by poet Langston Hughes that was originated by Encores! in 2011.)  The presentations dispense with most of the book, which is edited by playwrights like John Guare and Neil Simon (a former play doctor himself) and often read from scripts carried by the actors, and stage the musical scenes with a minimum of props and costumes and little or no set.  Encores! productions are rehearsed in eight days, with one dress rehearsal and five performances.  The orchestra, however, is generally a complete ensemble of up to 30 musicians or more (Most Happy Fella has 38, with orchestrations by Don Walker) because it’s the rendition of the score, sung by Broadway vets and stars, that is the point of Encores! work.  Many of the shows, three each season (this season’s début show was Neil Simon’s first musical, 1962’s Little Me), are well-remembered and even beloved (Most Happy Fella has been revived in New York as recently as 2007 by the New York City Opera, as well as several times in the ’90s.)

Loesser’s three-act Most Happy Fella, adapted from Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted (on Broadway in 1924-25), is the story of an older man, Tony, in love with a younger woman, Rosabella, set in the wine country of California’s Napa Valley and in San Francisco in 1927.  (The Encores! program actually makes no note of the setting date, and the costumes look more like mid-’50s, the era in which Most Happy Fella débuted.)  Tony’s a wine-grower, an Italian immigrant, and Rosabella’s an overworked waitress in San Francisco.  He’s too shy to “intrafaduce” himself to her (Tony doesn’t even know her real name so he makes up a romantic one), so he leaves her his “genuine amethyst tie pin” with a love note one day and she answers it without knowing who he is.  When she sends Tony her photo, after months of exchanged letters, he decides he can’t send her one of himself so he sends her a picture of Joe, his handsome, younger foreman.  When Rosabella (whose actual name, Tony and we learn much later, is Amy) arrives, Joe explains he’s not Tony and Rosabella’s angry.  When Tony has a serious truck accident on his way to meet her train, he persuades her to stay and marry him immediately in case he doesn’t survive.  She agrees but also realizes she’s falling for Joe.  Before the wedding, Rosabella discovers she’s pregnant and when she tells Tony about the baby and her intention to go back to San Francisco, Tony learns that Joe’s the father.  When he hears that Joe’s also leaving the farm, he suspects they’re going away together and rushes off to the bus station with a gun to confront Joe.  Joe’s already left for New Mexico, however, and Rosabella’s waiting for her bus.  Tony persuades Rosabella to stay at the farm and tell everyone that the baby’s his.                                          

Loesser (Where's Charley?, 1948-50; Guys and Dolls, 1950-53; The Music Man, 1957-61; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1961-65; A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, 1980-81) began work on Most Happy Fella in 1952, after a friend recommended Howard’s play.  They Knew What They Wanted contained political, labor, and religious issues and Loesser removed them, but it took him four years to make the musical adaptation.  The result, almost completely sung through, is very operatic (and the musical has been produced by several opera companies aside from NYCO, which has done it twice).  In his original New York Times review of Most Happy Fella, Brooks Atkinson, calling the production “a fine music drama,” wrote that “Loesser has now come about as close to opera as the rules of Broadway permit.”  It opened at the Imperial on 3 May 1956 with opera baritone Robert Weede as Tony, Jo Sullivan as Rosabella, and Art Lund as Joe under the direction of Joseph Anthony.  In 1959, City Center, now home to Encores!, presented a limited run of 16 performances in February, and in 1960, the play had its West End première in London; Lund crossed the pond to reprise his performance as Joe.  The musical was revived on Broadway in 1979 and the production was filmed and broadcast on PBS the following year as part of its Great Performances series; a DVD of the performance is available.  (The Most Happy Fella was never adapted for film.  There are, however, three movie versions of Sydney Howard’s straight play: The Secret Hour, 1928, silent film with Pola Negri as Amy and Jean Hersholt as Tony; A Lady to Love, 1930, with Vilma Bánky and Edward G. Robinson; and They Knew What They Wanted, 1940, directed by Garson Kanin with Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton.)  NYCO presented its first production of Most Happy Fella in 1991, the same year that Goodspeed Opera House in Haddam, Connecticut, produced a revival directed by Gerald Gutierrez, using twin pianos instead of a full orchestra (an arrangement Loesser apparently okayed before his death in 1969).  The Goodspeed production traveled to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles later that year and that staging was transferred to Broadway in 1992.  NYCO produced a limited engagement of Most Happy Fella with Paul Sorvino as Tony in 2006, and a concert version of the musical, starring George Hearn as Tony, was presented at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival in 2007.  Tulsa Opera staged the musical last year. 

The Encores! concert version, which opened on the night we saw it and ran through 6 April, was directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (Tony as co-director of The Book of Mormon, director of current production of Aladdin) with musical direction by Rob Berman (The Pajama Game, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, Finian's Rainbow), the Encores! musical director, and a cast of 38.  Presented as a two-act performance at City Center (the concert adaptation was by Bill Rosenfeld), the concert ran two hours and 25 minutes.  Shuler Hensley (Tarzan, Young Frankenstein; Olivier for his performance as Jud in Oklahoma! In London) was Tony, Laura Benanti (The Wedding Singer, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; Tony for performance in the title role in the revival of Gypsy) was Rosabella, and Cheyenne Jackson (All Shook Up, Xanadu, Finian’s Rainbow revival) played Joe.  The large orchestra was arrayed upstage behind the actors, who were relegated to a narrow strip of stage down front.  Our seats weren’t really great, up on the house right side of the balcony so we weren’t only looking down on the performers from a fair distance, but also on a severe angle.  At one point (“How Beautiful the Days,” a four-part number with operatic aspects), Tony and Rosabella were singing from center stage and Marie (Tony’s older sister) entered and stood singing stage right, and I heard Joe’s voice but couldn’t see him.  The amplification at City Center makes it impossible to detect where a voice is coming from—they all come from the same sound system, unlike live voices—so it wasn’t until Cheyenne Jackson made a slight movement that I saw he was obscured by a light pole at the stage left proscenium.)  If this had been anything more than a concert production, we’d have missed a lot of the spectacle, I’m sure.

With so large a cast and so narrow an acting space, I was surprised at how much staging Nicholaw put into the production.  (The cast of Most Happy Fella didn’t carry scripts—possibly because there’s so little spoken dialogue in the play that, having learned the songs, there was little else left to memorize.)  John Lee Beatty’s set (lit by Ken Billington) consisted mostly of a few risers up right (and, I presume, up left, too, though I couldn’t see those) and one across the rear of the acting area (which was about the middle of the stage, just below the orchestra) and some moveable wooden boxes that served as seats, platforms, tables, and whatever anyone needed.  Still, it was a lively show, with Nicholaw’s choreography simple but sprightly—and very reminiscent of the dancing of the old-time musicals from the middle of the last century.  I was particularly delighted with the four farmhands’ dancing-in-place for “Standing on the Corner” (Jay Armstrong Johnson, Ryan Bauer-Walsh, Ward Billeisen, and Arlo Hill), which was dominated by syncopated waist-bending and knee-flexing as the men stood in a line across stage center.  The song may express a sexist sentiment by today’s standards (“Brother, you can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking / Or for that woo look in your eye”), but it was fun and innocent.  Also marvelous, in a more spirited vein, were Zachary James, Bradley Dean, and Brian Calì as what Ben Brantley in the New York Times called “the bouncing, dancing chefs” in “Abbondanza,” a paean to overeating!  (I found it amusing to think that Loesser, a Jew, seemed to have learned so much Italian for the several numbers he wrote in which no English is sung!  They may be in simple Italian, single words or short phrases, but still . . . .)

I already remarked that Gregg Barnes’s costumes looked more like the ’50s than ’20s, with technicolor skirts about knee-length for the women, billowing out whenever they flounced or twirled.  (There was a fair amount of flouncing goin’ on—after all, this was ’50s show biz!)  The guys were mostly in coveralls or dungarees and flannel shirts, which are timeless, of course, and in the end, it’s of little consequence whether the clothes looked right for one decade or another as Most Happy Fella is really set in a fantasy world anyway.  It’s truly musical comedy as it was before the genre got serious a few years later.  (West Side Story, a musical tragedy, was only a year or two away.)  I recently called Newsies a throw-back to the old-time musicals (ROT, 26 February); The Most Happy Fella is a genuine old-time musical, with its simplistic and sentimental treatment of both May-December romance and the immigrant Americans’ effort to make it in the new country.  (Newsday’s Linda Winer called this latter “an atsa-spicy-meatball concept of Italian immigrants.”)  There’s no real intellect in Most Happy Fella, but there’s a lot of heart.  It’s a feel-good play—which is what “musical comedy” used to mean. 

There’s only a modicum of acting in an Encores! concert, little more than projecting the principal character traits and essential personality as they’re expressed in the songs.  Of course, in a nearly-operatic musical like Most Happy Fella, that still leaves a lot.  I knew some of the lead actors’ names, but I wasn’t familiar with anyone’s work except from past reviews (a few are relative newcomers), but the whole cast was fine—and several, even among the featured roles, had excellent voices.  (I was especially impressed with Kevin Vortman’s tenor as the doctor: it was clear, sharp, and strong, even with the muddy amplification.)  Shuler Hensley, who just finished a run in the Beckett-Pinter two-play rep on Broadway and was Tim, the young actor, in two of Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Plays at the Public’s premières (I reported on a revival of Nelson’s That Hopey Changey Thing on ROT on 15 December 2013), made Tony very sympathetic and slightly lost, even through his cartoon Eye-talian accent (‘picture’ comes out a-pitch; ‘I’ is I’ma), and still a strong, passionate man who’s kind and generous by instinct and falls deeply in love easily.  Hensley’s voice isn’t operatic like others who’ve assayed the role before, but it’s strong and expressive, like an old-fashioned musical-theater voice.  As Joe, the foreman afflicted with permanent wanderlust, Cheyenne Jackson displayed less character than Hensley (the Daily News’s Joe Dziemianowicz said Jackson’s “atypically underfueled”), but I’m not sure that the part’s not underwritten a mite, relying on his supposed good looks and laconic loner allure (in old flicks, he’d be played by Gary Cooper).  He’s no bad boy or dark horse, but he didn’t exude the kind of intestinal fortitude that Hensley’s Tony did.  Jackson’s voice is good, but less dynamic than Vortman’s or even Hensley’s; his “Joey, Joey, Joey” was nice but unremarkable as a character revealer. 

Among the women, Laura Benanti as Rosabella showed off classic musical comedy chops starting in the opening scene when she and her best friend (and fellow waitress), Cleo, compare notes on men and customers in “I Know How It Is.”  Benanti didn’t establish a lot of character, either, but again I figure that’s more the fault of Loesser’s book than the actress’s or director’s deficiencies.  It’s hard to believe that any woman would agree to marry a man she doesn’t know on such short notice, even if he could die soon—when does that happen except in romantic fiction?—but Benanti didn’t make it any easier to figure; we just have to accept it for the plot’s sake.  In the hands of Heidi Blickenstaff, Rosabella’s bestie, Cleo, was more of a personality—after all, she’s from “Big D”!  (In musical comedy, especially in the mid-century, if you come from Texas, New York City, Boston, or the Old South, you get instant character.)  Now and then as she cracks wise, her Texan sounded more like New Jerseyan, but her singing was spirited and lively—this Cleo could belt!—and she paired well with Jay Armstrong Johnson as Herman, her fellow Dallasite (Cleo and Herman are the Ado Annie and Will Parker of Most Happy Fella), starting with “Big D” and including “I Like Everybody” and “I Made a Fist.”  (This is another pairing that took some belief-suspension as Herman’s played as too much of a dimwit for this Cleo to fall for—but this may have been more director Nicholaw’s decision than Johnson’s or even Loesser’s.)

While Tony’s and Rosabella’s romantic fortunes go up and down in musical comedy fashion, and Joe remains the proverbial rolling stone, the most forlorn character in Most Happy Fella is Tony’s sister, Marie, who’s so fearful that Rosabella will remove her only purpose in life, the promise she made to their mother to look after Tony, that she tries to torpedo his romance with Rosabella (“Mamma wouldn’t want you to do anything foolish,” Marie warns).  She reminds him frequently that he’s not good-looking, not smart, and not young anymore (plus, he talks funny)—and he keeps buying it (which is why he sent Rosabella Joe’s photo to start with).  As Marie, Jessica Molaskey nearly made me feel bad for this sorry old maid (even though her appearance kept calling to mind Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blücher in the 1974 film of Young Frankenstein—not a sympathetic character).  Possibly the saddest number in Loesser’s score is the duet between Marie and Tony, “Young People”/”Old People Gotta” in which she once again convinces her brother that “young people gotta dance, dance, dance, / Old people gotta get left behind.”  If Most Happy Fella has a point, it’s simply that love and happiness aren’t susceptible to age or age gaps.  As Rob Berman, the show’s and the Encores! musical director, phrased it: “The Most Happy Fella . . . is a story about people who learn to let go of old notions, forgive each other, and embrace the circumstances of the lives they lead.”  Now, that’s old-time musical comedy!

I should remind ROT-readers that I have a thing about these old Broadway musicals.  I have little critical distance because I was so enamored of the form when I was growing up, listening to my dad’s cast albums of Carousel, South Pacific, and Oklahoma! and then seeing some of the greats of the late ’50s and early ’60s, from Fiorello! to My Fair Lady to Camelot to The Sound of Music to Hair, that I can’t separate my feelings of nostalgia from the quality of the performances.  (I confessed to all this in my ROT post, “A Broadway Baby,” on 22 September 2010.)  I don’t have the same connection to Most Happy Fella because I never saw it either back then or since, but I did hear some of the score, I remember the chatter at the time, and it’s part of that era.  (Frank Loesser is, of courseairHairHHHHH, one of the giants of the end of the golden age of the Broadway musical.  Guys and Dolls, Music Man, How to Succeed are all part of my love affair with the musical theater.)  You might have to read some between the lines of my report to filter out my bias (which I have tried to suppress, but you can judge how successfully). 

This having been a concert performance with a very short run and no previews, the press coverage was a little smaller than it might otherwise have been—most of the weeklies didn’t make it before post time.   In the Daily News (“I’ll tell you what’s in the Daily News . . . .”  Sorry.  That’s Guys and Dolls, Loesser’s great 1950 smash), Joe Dziemianowicz led off with, “Like a great bottle of wine, the vineyard-set musical ‘The Most Happy Fella’ is robust, complex and palate-pleasing.”  He continued, “Most happily, those grace notes shine through in the joyful and exuberant staging,” and recommends, “Go, have a pour.”  In Long Island’s Newsday, Winer opened her notice by exclaiming, “What a weird one this was.”  Loesser, she explained, “appears to have gone berserk on a style-shopping spree with ‘The Most Happy Fella.’”  Noting that the play has “an almost ludicrous combination of inconsistent intentions,” Winer dubbed the Encores! production “a large but largely uninspired concert revival.”  Nicholaw, the Newsday reviewer said, “makes no apparent attempt to integrate the styles or mute the idiotic comic relief” and added, “Nor does this oddly cast production . . . distract us with thrilling performances,” asserting that Hensley is especially “adrift” in his portrayal.  Comparing the Encores! concert rendition to the 1992 two-piano mounting from Goodspeed/Ahmanson, Winer concluded, “This one has a big, glorious orchestra.  That's nice, but not good enough to make the show work.”  Observing that Loesser’s Most Happy Fella possesses “one of the most openhearted, gloriously romantic scores ever written,” Matt Windman of am New York promised that theatergoers were “sure to appreciate Casey Nicholaw’s highly enjoyable staging.”  Windman reported that the principals’ “acting is exquisite throughout” and that the “rest of the cast is superb.”

In the New York Times, Ben Brantley, hailing the arrival of spring in New York City, proclaimed that “for my money, the true vernal equinox occurred on Wednesday night at City Center, when a rapturous production of ‘The Most Happy Fella’ opened,” adding, “Casey Nicholaw’s production of Frank Loesser’s 1956 classic feels like a great thaw” after the “long, hard winter.”  Reporting that Hensley and Benanti did “their richest work to date” in the concert, “matched by an orchestra that turns thought into music” as played “[u]nder the splendid direction of the conductor Rob Berman,” the Timesman wrote that the show is “an unabashed hymn of hope to fresh starts and quickened feelings.”  With regard to the vocalizing of the company, Brantley stated, “There are no complaints . . . regarding Mr. Nicholaw’s production.”  In his final assessment, Brantley admonished that “musical-loving adults with open hearts should do their best to make it to City Center before this glorious ‘Fella’ leaves town” (which, unhappily, it already has).  Calling the concert revival of Most Happy Fella “intoxicating,” Elisabeth Vincentelli recommended, “Fans of glorious singing should hustle to City Center” to catch it (sorry, it’s too late).  Vincentelli found that the production “does Loesser justice” and that in the end, “You just don’t want the show to end.”  New York magazine’s Jesse Green declared, “The Most Happy Fella is one of the greatest musicals ever.”  The Encores! production, he observed, “follows with perfect naturalness the curves of Loesser’s writing” while the principal cast “is especially strong.” 

On Talkin’ Broadway in the on-line reviews, Matthew Murray called Most Happy Fella “one of Broadway’s most curious Golden Age creations” and acknowledged that “even when not everything is exactly right, as is the case with director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s mounting, it’s still irresistible.”  Murray complained that “Nicholaw’s direction is . . . on the flat side, and his dances more dependent on glitz than appropriateness for period or character” and though he lauded Benanti and the featured actors in the Encores! cast, he found Hensley “vocally underpowered” and, because the actor “doesn't completely connect to the music, he doesn't completely connect to Tony.”  As Joe, “Jackson’s voice is good for a pop musical but not especially resonant for Loesser's loftier chores; and a general onstage indifference about him makes Joey too blasé as either an object of desire or a threat.”  In the end, however, Murray decided, “Sure, there are a few missteps, but even so it’s difficult to imagine how this Most Happy Fella could be bigger, more captivating, or more charming than it is.”  TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart wrote, “Opera fans and Broadway enthusiasts alike will find something to enjoy about this concert staging” of Most Happy Fella which “draws out Loesser's lush and beautiful score while maintaining a rigorous approach to acting.”  “Like a Technicolor musical version of Of Mice and Men,” suggested the TM review-writer, “the world of agrarian California springs to vivid life,” even as she bemoaned the loss of some of the edited book. 

In her CurtainUp review, Elyse Sommer felt that “you'll be ‘happy to make its acquaintance[’] (or, if you've seen it before, ‘re-acquaintance’)” if you’d managed to catch Encores! Most Happy Fella, which she called “superb” and “the biggest, most close to perfection Encores! production I've seen in a while.”  Nicholaw’s “choreography is especially impressive,” Sommer reported, and the leads “lend glorious voices to this genre defying but gorgeous musical's challenging” score and “other key players are also standouts.”  “I was glad to hear Loesser’s Most Happy Fella again and sung so well by top-notch players,” wrote David Finkle on Huffington Post, “with one particularly notable exception and one minor exception.”  (Finkle felt Hensley “couldn't muster the volume” for the role—though I read later that he was ailing, as apparently was Benanti as well.  The “minor drawback” was that “Jackson might have mined more of Joe’s expressed restlessness.”)  Overall, HP’s reviewer found, “the company acting was fine across the board” and that Nicholaw’s Most Happy Fella was “in good enough form to reward fans with an acceptable look and listen.”

[There’s been a perpetual controversy in the theater world about whether Loesser had written a musical play or an opera in Most Happy Fella.  Many opera companies have produced it, including, as I noted, New York City Opera twice, and the role of Tony has often been sung by an opera singer (such as Robert Weede in the play’s début).  To my ear, this debate is like the ones over whether an actor is a creative or interpretive artist and whether Shakespeare wrote his plays—it’s irrelevant and ultimately silly.  Like the Bard’s plays, it’s sufficient that Most Happy Fella exists and is available for actors to perform and audiences to enjoy.  It’s entirely unnecessary to put a label on it—or, even worse, argue over that label.  It is what it is.  (Loesser just called Most Happy Fella “a musical with a lot of music.”  That should be good enough for anyone.  It is for me!)]

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