The Most Happy Fella

NY City Center Encores - April 2014

Review by John Kenrick

Oh, how I needed this -- and the way the audience I saw The Most Happy Fella with roared through the entire performance, I get the feeling a lot of other people did too! The Encores series has given theatre lovers a lot to cheer about over the past 20 years, but they have outdone themselves with this rapturous staging of Frank Loesser's under-appreciated masterpiece. A jubilant physical production, a stellar dream cast and magical material combine to make this the kind of evening that -- in the words of one song -- "makes the springtime come so fast!"

This achingly beautiful musical adaptation of Sidney Howard's play They Knew What They Wanted has rarely gotten its just desserts. The original 1956 production got plenty of critical acclaim, but it had the misfortune to arrive on Broadway just days after My Fair Lady, which took the lion's share of the awards that season. There was no film version, and the huge cast and orchestra requirements made amateur productions rather rare. The 1979 Broadway revival was extremely well sung but under-acted, and an intimate but exquisitely cast 1992 production with only two pianos in the pit never found an audience. While occasional opera company productions have usually served the demanding score well, they invariably prove less than satisfying as drama.

And it takes some real actors to handle this story of Tony, an aging Napa Valley grape farmer who uses a photo of his handsome foreman Joe to woo Rosabella, a pretty young waitress who caught his eye during a trip to San Francisco. When a car crash leaves Tony near death, Rosaella agrees to marry him but winds up spending the night finding comfort in Joe's arms. In time, Rosabella finds she truly loves the wheelchair-bound Tony -- only to learn that she is pregnant. In less than the best hands, this plot can become dangerously melodramatic.

Luckily, the folks at Encores give The Most Happy Fella the perfectly balanced treatment that it demands but so rarely gets -- resulting in the kind of soul-satisfying evening audiences hunger for but so rarely get. Broadway director Casey Nicolaw (Aladdin, Book of Mormon) has pulled off the perfect balance of operatic vocals and theatrical punch, and tops it off by including some of the most polished and audience-pleasing choreography this season. Set designer John Lee Beatty, who has worked so many miracles for Encores in the past, takes things to a new level with an eye-popping series of backdrops. Throw in picture-perfect period costumes by Gregg Barnes and flawless lighting by Ken Billington, and the results are visually ravishing. Rob Berman conducts the marvelous 38 memeber orchestra with his usual flair, and gives his hard-singing cast the kind of support most performers only get to dream of.

Expectations were high ever since it was announced that Tony winners Shuler Hensley and Laura Benanti would star as Fella's seemingly mismatched lovers. Well both of these gifted actors pulverized those expectations by delivering the breathtaking performances, taking this material to levels I have never seen it reach before. By the time they reached their final rendition of the aria-like "My Heart Is So Full of You," I and damn near everyone else sitting around me was wiping away tears of joy. Jessica Molaskey is surprisingly sympathetic as the interfering sister Marie, and Cheyenne Jackson is a dream come true as the irresistible foreman Joe.

Heidi Blickenstaff is wonderful as the belting best friend Cleo, and Jay Armstrong Johnson is a total delight as the goofy but loveable Herman -- he makes "Standing On the Corner" and "Big D" the show-stoppers they ought to be. Kevin Vortmann handles the doctor's perilous vocals with apparent ease, and as the comic trio of farmhands, Zachary James, Bradley Den and Brian Cali are nothing less than giddy perfection.

This is not only the best staging of The Most Happy Fella that I have ever seen -- it is, bar none, the best damn thing on Broadway this season. After seeing it, it felt as if I floated all the way home. What a damn pity it will be here and gone in just one weekend! If you can, treat yourself to this truly spectacular production.

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