Theater Review: ‘The Most Happy Fella’
NEW YORK—For a nice musical interlude, one could do far worse than the very enjoyable “The Most Happy Fella.” The book, music, and lyrics by Frank Loesser (based on the play “They Knew What They Wanted” by Sidney Howard), was recently seen as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center.
At a coffee shop in 1927 San Francisco, a pretty waitress (Laura Benanti) smiles for the customers all day while putting up with the sexist attitude of the Cashier (Daniel Schwait). Still, she is content with her life, as she tells her best friend and co-worker Cleo (Heidi Blickenstaff).
Things change when this waitress is left a rather unusual tip and a note, courtesy of Tony (Shuler Hensley). Tony, who refers to her as “Rosabella” and who owns a vineyard in Napa Valley, fell in love with her when she served him at the restaurant. He tells Rosabella she’s the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen.
Struck by the passion from this man whom she doesn’t even remember, Rosabella replies to Tony’s message, and the two begin a courtship by mail. These events culminate with Rosabella agreeing to marry him.
Tony, however, has not been entirely truthful. Middle-aged and not classically handsome, he believes he’s not the sort Rosabella will fall for. In a fit of panic, when Rosabella asks for a picture, Tony sends her a snapshot of his foreman Joe (Cheyenne Jackson), a younger, all-too-sure-of-himself type of guy with wanderlust in his heart.
With everybody in Napa Valley turning out to welcome Rosabella (Tony having kept his letter romance a secret from no one), she’s shocked to learn how she’s been deceived. Yet when Tony is severely injured, he begs her to marry him before he’s rushed into surgery. Rosabella, having burned all her bridges and with nowhere else to go, agrees.
To her surprise, as time goes on and Tony begins to heal, she finds herself falling in love with him all over again. Yet as Rosabella begins to realize the depth of her feelings, Tony, who feels more and more acutely the age difference between them, tries his best to push her away, feeling she’s only staying with him out of pity.
Tony’s state of mind in this matter is solidified by his well-meaning, but misguided older sister, Marie (Jessica Molaskey), who sees Tony as a good, but ugly man. She reasons that anyone as pretty as Rosabella would never want him.
There’s also another rift forming between Tony and Rosabella, one that had its seeds sown the night she first came to Napa. Suffering from hurt and confusion, she found temporary solace with someone else.
An interesting take on a May–December romance, with elements of a fish-out-of-water theme running throughout, “The Most Happy Fella” is at its heart a tale about people searching for that special person, and how we must ultimately trust our instincts in that regard.
The story was powerfully brought across by the very appealing cast and absolutely wonderful Frank Loesser score. The score combines operatic tunes with numbers filled with comedic complaints and songs expressing quiet longing and heartfelt yearning.
Hensley was excellent as Tony, a kind but ultimately insecure sort, who is initially unwilling to trust Rosabella to fall in love with him, even though she has already done so. At the same time, he’s a man of passion—when you hear him singing the title tune you really believe it—struggling with all the reasons he feels such a match could never work, yet at the same time hoping it can.
Benanti was fine as Rosabella, a kind of mail-order bride who leaves everything she knows behind in order to be with Tony. Upon discovering Tony’s deception, she’s fatalistic enough to realize she must lie in the bed she’s made, but she’s also able to look beyond that deception and try to get to know the man behind it.
Jackson was good as Joe, a guy always looking for something over the next hill. While the role is somewhat underwritten, it’s more than a throwaway character.
Also very good was Blickenstaff, who offered a bit of comic relief as Cleo. She was nicely paired with Herman (Jay Armstrong Johnson), a genial employee of Tony’s with a ready smile and turn-the-other-cheek attitude.
The two did well in the comic duet “Big D,” with Blickenstaff having already endeared herself to the audience with the very funny “Ooh! My Feet!” It’s a number just about everyone in the service industry can relate to.
Molaskey did a good turn as Marie, a woman who believes too much in the status quo and perhaps worries about her own place in Tony’s life once Rosabella comes on the scene.
The rest of the cast worked well, both in terms of singing and dancing, shining in several enjoyable ensemble numbers.
Best of all was the Frank Loesser score, wonderfully performed by the Encores! Orchestra, conducted by Rob Berman. Many of the songs enhanced the sense of community that was created in the show.
These numbers included “Standing on the Corner,” the favorite pastime of the single men in the valley as they watch all the girls go by. Also powerful was “No Home, No Job,” which Benanti sang when her character arrived in Napa only to realize what she’s gotten herself into.
There’s also the hopeful “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance,” a number about starting over, another basic theme of the show.
Loesser’s book also works nicely. The show’s director and choreographer, Casey Nicholaw, kept things moving smoothly such that the production never felt overlong. It allowed the soul of the show—the characters of Rosabella and Tony—to shine through.
A heartfelt work about the possibilities of finding that special someone, “The Most Happy Fella” was a joyful entry in the Encores! series.
Also in the cast were Wayne Pretlow, Christopher Rice, Ward Billeisen, Ryan Bauer-Walsh, Arlo Hill, Bradley Dean, Zachary James, Brian Calì, Kevin Vortmann, Joseph Beutel, Daniel Curran, Kevin Grace, Tanya Birl, Callie Carter, Steven Trumon Gray, Leah Horowitz, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Anne Kanengeiser, Lizzie Klemperer, Eloise Kropp, Shina Ann Morris, Patricia Noonan, Lindsay O’Neil, Jessica Lea Patty, Aleks Pevec, Rachel Rhodes-Devey, Manuel Stark, Sam Strasfeld, Kathryn Terza, Clay Thomson, and Kathy Voytko.
The Most Happy Fella
New York City Center
151 West 55th Street
Ran: April 2 – April 6
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.