Most Happy Fella
By David A. Rosenberg
When Rosabella sings about how glad she is that she came to a place much “nicer and sweeter and warmer” than she expected, a grateful audience can only agree. At Goodspeed, Frank Loesser’s brilliant “The Most Happy Fella” is an unexpected triumph, “unexpected” because the theater’s last production of this quasi-opera was skimpy and unrealized.
But that production didn’t have Rob Ruggiero at the wheel, a director who even made “Camelot” palatable and brought humanity to the pageant-like “1776.” For “Fella,” his gifts are almost instantaneous, beginning with the immediately empathetic appearance of Tony Esposito, the homely, good-hearted, foolish, middle-aged, loving proprietor of a Napa Valley grape ranch.
Poor Tony. Dominated by a sister whose love for him borders on the incestuous, he yearns to get married. Visiting San Francisco, he leaves his stickpin as a tip for Rosabella, an attractive waitress. A correspondence begins, ending in Rosabella’s journeying to the ranch to become, in effect, a mail-order bride.
Her initiation is inauspicious. Tony, belittling his looks and age, has sent his bride-to-be not his own photo but one of his handsome foreman, Joey. Disappointed in discovering she contracted to be married to the older man, Rosabella is an easy target for Joey.
The rest of the plot, based on Sidney Howard’s Pulitzer Prize “They Knew What They Wanted,” is an untangling of these first impressions. All is told to Loesser’s glorious score which lies between musical comedy (“Big D,” “Standing on the Corner,” “Oooh, My Feet”) and opera (“How Beautiful the Days,” “Song of a Summer Night,” “Eyes Like a Stranger”).
That last number was cut before the show’s 1956 Broadway opening. Restored, it proves to be an important revelation for Marie, Tony’s sister, showing her unrequited desire to keep Tony for herself.
But one song cut from this production should not have been. “I Made a Fist” which, as sung by one of the ranch hands, the unprepossessing Herman who “likes everybody,” puts a cap on his character and leads to his acceptance by the brash Cleo. Eliminating the number unfortunately leaves the Herman-Cleo courtship unresolved. Besides, as Herman, Kevin Vortmann is so ingratiating.
Yet it’s a minor glitch in an otherwise moving, lyrical production. Solos, duos, trios, quartets and full choral numbers weave throughout. Parker Esse’s choreography is integrated, flowing naturally from situations. Scenery, lighting and costumes combine to paint a bucolic yet near-tragic tale.
As Tony, Bill Nolte is heartbreaking without overdoing the sentiment. Mamie Parris is a tough, independent Rosabella, while Ann Arvia brings touching need to sister Marie. As the handsome Joe, Doug Carpenter is as puzzled by his own attractiveness as he is by his attraction to Rosabella. Singing beautifully, he makes Joey into a figure as lonely as the others.
Director Ruggiero eschews the melodramatic soapie the piece could become in favor of an endearing, affectionate and humane approach that leaves an audience feeling happy to have made such acquaintances.