Musical Theatre Guild once again astounds with their “Concert Staged Reading” of Frank Loesser’s 1956 Broadway musical drama The Most Happy Fella, their most vocally challenging project since Elmer Rice-Kurt Weill-Langston Hughes’ Street Scene nearly two years ago.

Like Street Scene, The Most Happy Fella blurs the line between opera and musical theater, and though it has more than a bit of spoken dialog, most of it is “sung through” and often operatically so.  In fact, the 1956 vinyl Original Cast Album had so much music on it that it was released in a then unheard-of 3-LP boxed set with virtually the entire show intact.

The Most Happy Fella is based on Sidney Howard’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize-winning They Knew What They Wanted, the tale of Antonio “Tony” Esposito, a middle-aged Italian immigrant Napa Valley grape grower who falls in love at first sight with a San Francisco waitress he dubs “Rosabella.” Unable to summon up the courage to talk to her, Tony leaves her a note in which he declares his love and proposes marriage. After a correspondence begins between the two, Rosabella (who has no recollection of Tony at the diner) asks for his picture. Fearing that his beloved Rosabella will lose interest once she sees this balding, slightly-overweight Italian, he sends her a snapshot of Joe, his foreman, a hunk of a man if there ever was one. Rosabella is immediately taken by Joe’s masculine good looks and packs her bags for Napa.

Though I’m less fond of Loesser’s score for The Most Happy Fella than of his more famous Guys And Dolls (with his bouncy How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying being my favorite Loesser show), there are numerous memorable songs, the most famous of which is the barber-shop-harmonied “Standing On The Corner.” Rosabella’s joyous “Somebody, Somewhere,” her tender “Warm All Over,” and especially her oh-so-romantic duet with Tony, “My Heart Is So Full Of You,” are standouts, as are the bright and breezy “Big D” (the show’s other Hit Parade smash), “I Like Everybody,” and “I Made A Fist.”  Then there’s the title song, a leave-the-theater-humming hit if there ever was one.

The role of Tony requires an actor equally comfortable on the opera stage as in musical theater, and in guest artist Michael Skidgel, MTG has found the perfect Tony.  Rarely has a voice quite as big as Skidgel’s been heard in an MTG production, and when Tony sings about his “Rosabella” or prays to his “Mamma, Mamma,” or duets “My Heart Is So Full Of You” with his young bride, Skidgel’s gorgeous baritone reaches the farthest rafters of the Alex.  Skidgel’s performance is superb, from his perfect Italian to his joyous welcome of Rosabella to his rage upon learning that she has been with another man.

Opposite Skidgel is StageSceneLA’s Performer Of The Year Michelle Duffy in a performance that reconfirms her status as our finest singer-actress. In demand as she is in musical theater, it’s been a while since Duffy has tackled a non-musical role (she’s as comfortable playing Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams as belting out a rock ballad), but roles like Rocky in Mask and Rosabella in The Most Happy Fella reveal Duffy’s considerable dramatic gifts in the musical theater arena. Those who heard Duffy’s rock-star vocals in Mask will be astounded at her flawless operatic soprano as Rosabella, effortlessly hitting the highest of high notes in “Somebody, Somewhere.”  Duffy is the very definition of amazing.  

Providing welcome comic relief are Jenny Gordon as Rosabella’s best friend Cleo and Dan Callaway as Herman, the hired hand who’s caught her eye. Gordon’s broad strokes as Cleo score many laughs, especially in the show’s opener, “Ooh! My Feet!”  Callaway, who proved his leading man mettle (and voice) in Paradise Lost: Shadows And Wings, demonstrates equal proficiency at comedy as Herman, whose sheer likeability ends up being almost too much for the more acerbic Cleo.

As Joe, the handsome hunk of a foreman, the wonderful Sam Zeller is scarcely recognizable as the evil Judd Frye of last month’s Oklahoma!, and gets to sing a couple of The Most Happy Fella’s most romantic ballads, “Joey, Joey, Joey” and “Don’t Cry.” Carol Kline has many powerful moments as Tony’s jealous, possessive sister Marie, and Steven Hack is very good as always as “The Doctor,” a role which gives him his own solo, “Song Of A Summer Night.” Brandon Michael Perkins is his ingratiating self as a cashier, the postman, and a gaggle of various townsfolk.

Stopping the show every time they’re onstage are the trio of Scott Harlan, Reece Holland, and Danny Stiles. As Al, Clem, and Jake, the gents join voices with Callaway for “Standing On The Corner,” but it’s as Italian “party planners” Giuseppe, Pasquale, and Ciccio that the three stellar performers get biggest applause, the over-the-top hilarious “Abbondanza.” (One of master director Calvin Remsberg’s many inspirations is having the three Italians carry floor mikes with them wherever they go, the better to launch into song without a moment’s delay.)

One of the most astonishing aspects of MTG productions are the shows’ choreographed numbers. How these performers manage not only to learn songs and blocking and be virtually off book (though Equity rules require them to have script in hand) in just 25 hours of rehearsal…AND throw in a dance or two or three in the bargain never ceases to amaze.  The marvelous Cheryl Baxter has choreographed several alternately jaunty and graceful numbers which showcase Seth Hampton and Beth Alison’s dance gifts, as well as those of the entire cast.

The Most Happy Fella’s stellar ensemble is completed by MTG artists Pamela Hamill, Tracy Lore, and Heather Provost, and guest artists Robert Arbogast, Lois Bourgon, Chris Ciccarelli, Lindsay McDonald, Lori Moran, and Jeffrey Christopher Todd, plus the pintsized charmers Benjamin Holtzman and Adrianna Robakowski.

MTG’s production uses the two-piano accompaniment created for the 1992 Broadway revival (which was part of the Ahmanson at the Doolittle season in 1991). Though I prefer the fully orchestrated Broadway original, the scaled-down orchestrations work well in the MTG concert staged reading context, and are beautifully performed by Steven Smith and James May.

Many MTG productions are one-time-only, but The Most Happy Fella will be restaged in Thousand Oaks on November 23.  It is not to be missed.

The Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Ave., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
November 10, 2008

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