Advisory to all musical theater lovers in Los Angeles and beyond: Run, don’t walk, to USC’s Bing Theatre this week and next to catch Frank Loesser’s 1956 Broadway musical drama The Most Happy Fella in a production the likes of which you are unlikely to see any time soon (or even not that soon).
Now before you say, “But I don’t see student productions,” allow me to point out that this is USC’s prestigious School Of Dramatic Arts, many of whose grads have gone on to star on Broadway and beyond. Not only that, but The Most Happy Fella has been impeccably directed by Tony winner John Rubinstein and choreographed with athleticism and panache by two-time Ovation Award nominee Lili Fuller (herself a recent USC grad), and it features a full pit orchestra under the baton of award-winning musical director Alby Potts. Talk about credentials!
That being said, The Most Happy Fella is a rather daring choice for any theater, let alone for one on a university campus, if only because by blurring the line between opera and musical theater, it requires performers of the highest vocal caliber. Though the musical does feature 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.
Fortunately, every single leading player on the Bing Theater stage has pipes to sing Loesser’s melodies as they ought to be sung. Close your eyes and you’d never guess you were hearing students twenty-two and under. As for the Happiest Fella himself, a role originated on Broadway by Metropolitan Opera star Robert Weede, USC has its own secret weapon in Cole Cuomo, without whom I can’t imagine The Most Happy Fella even having been considered as this year’s annual Spring Musical.
But first a bit about the show itself.
Based on Sidney Howard’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize-winning They Knew What They Wanted, The Most Happy Fella recounts 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, middle-aged Italian, he sends her a snapshot of Joe, his foreman and a hunk of a man if there ever was one. Rosabella is immediately taken by Joe’s masculine good looks and takes the first bus out of San Francisco posthaste.
Needless to say, there’s a not-so-happy surprise awaiting the mail-order bride upon her arrival in Tony’s Napa Valley.
Among the many memorable songs Loesser wrote for The Most Happy Fella, the most famous is surely the barber-shop-harmonied “Standing On The Corner,” which hit #3 on the Billboard Charts. 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 other standouts, as are the bright and breezy “Big D,” “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.
Still, despite a tried-and-true plot and gorgeous tunes, any production of The Most Happy Fella will sink or swim based on its Tony, and how many performers in their early twenties are up to the role’s many challenges?
Cuomo most definitely is, the USC junior having only several months ago proven his dramatic-vocal mettle as Sweeney Todd, a performance about which I wrote: “With his darkly masculine presence and big rich baritone, Cuomo (the star of such diverse USC fare as City Of Angels, The Drowsy Chaperone, A Little Night Music, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) has the charisma, the gravitas, the acting chops, and the pipes to make us believe that he is indeed the Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.”
Pate now shaved to a circle of graying hair above the ears, Cuomo not only persuades us he is decades older than his mere twenty years, he invests the role of Tony with the gravitas, the acting chops, and the pipes to make us believe that this 50ish “old man” has indeed won the heart of everyone around him, that he despairs of ever finding a partner to share his life with him, and that he might even step onto an operatic stage during his time off from farming. Cuomo’s joyous rendition of “Rosabella,” his prayer to “Mamma, Mamma,” and his duet of “My Heart Is So Full Of You” with his young bride are as gorgeous as it gets. Not only that, Signor Cuomo speaks convincing Italian and acts the heck out of the role, from Tony’s jubilant welcome of Rosabella to his Napa Valley home, to his awestruck discovery that she returns his love, to his rage upon learning that she has been with another man.
Kimberly Hessler is Rosabella to Cuomo’s Tony, and a more crystalline soprano audiences could not ask for, hitting the highest of high notes in “Somebody, Somewhere” with ease. Add to that a delicate beauty and a genuine sincerity to win Tony’s heart at first glance and you’ve got a perfect match for Most Happy Fella’s most perfect leading man.
Providing comic relief as Rosabella’s best friend Cleo is Adrienne Visnic, previously seen in Katharine Hepburn mode in A Little Night Music and now proving herself a comedienne in the grand tradition of Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball. Visnic steals every scene she’s in, aided and abetted by a couldn’t-be-cuter-or-spunkier Andrew Schmidt as Herman, the hired hand whose sheer likeability ends up being almost too much for acerbic city-gal Cleo. Selling the show’s opener, “Ooh! My Feet!” with the best of them, Visnic then duets an infectious “Big D” opposite young charmer Schmidt, who gets his own scene-stealing solo of “I Made A Fist!”
As Joe, the handsome foreman whose “pitcha” persuades Rosabella to head off to Napa, D.J. Blickenstaff segues from his stellar direction of Little Shop Of Horrors and Sweeney Todd to the bona fide leading man he was in A Little Night Music, lending his rich vocals to two of The Most Happy Fella’s most romantic ballads, “Joey, Joey, Joey” and “Don’t Cry,” and convincing us that whatever happens, Joe’s heart is in the right place.
Haley Fletcher is a standout as Tony’s jealous, possessive sister Marie, displaying acting chops and vocal gifts to match her costars’. As farmhands Al, Clem, and Jake, the terrific trio of Turner Frankosky, Tyler Miclean, and David Nicholson join voices in barbershop harmonies with Schmidt’s Herman for a buoyantly catchy “Standing On The Corner.” And speaking of terrific trios, Henry Boyd, Peter Mitchell, and Ian Shain (as “party planners” Giuseppe, Pasquale, and Ciccio) have the gorgeous Italian opera pipes and comedic talents to make “Abbondanza” and “Benvenuta” a pair of over-the-top hilarious showstoppers. Eric Hu makes for a fine Doctor, and gets his own tenor solo “Song Of A Summer Night.” Children Chelsea Rifkin and Zachary Rifkin are petite charmers as Tessie and Gussie.
On a newsworthy note, USC Athletic Director Pat Haden’s cameo as Postman #2 earns cheers for his character’s delightfully folksy “I See Her At The Station.” Though Haden’s 60ish presence in this otherwise late-teens/early 20s cast does stick out more than a tad, merely knowing that it may introduce many of USC’s 650 student athletes to the world of musical theater is reason enough to celebrate Haden’s “special appearance” in the production.
Completing the all-around splendid cast are Allison Aoun (Waitress), Taylor Barry (Waitress), Matt Brown (The Cashier, The Man), dance captain Sarah Fanella (Waitress), Arielle Fishman (The Country Girl), Jacqueline Garell (Aunt Harriet), Kevin Herald (The Priest, The Bus Driver), Natalie Johnson (Maxine), Jennifer Kranz (Agnes Jones), Madison Mills (Gladys), Megan Mountford (The Woman), Andie Mueller (Neighbor Woman), Maggie Nolting (Van Pelt), Sanford Reed (The Bus Boy, The City Boy, Truck Driver), Charlotte Spangler (The Brakewoman), Caroline Spinola (The Mandolin Player), and Elizabeth Weir (Sullivan), with Frankosky doubling as Truck Driver and Nicholson as Postman #1.
Not only do the above students sing in gorgeous harmonies, director Rubinstein has given each one his or her own mini-storyline to tell, and whether or not these young Trojans came into rehearsals as dancers, choreographer extraordinaire Fuller has whipped them into dancing shape for a number of energetic, athletic, and even balletic musical numbers including the wedding party “Sposalizio” and the hoedown-flavored “Big D.”
I’ve seen The Most Happy Fella three times before, each production featuring the two-piano accompaniment created for the 1992 Broadway revival in place of the fully orchestrated Broadway original, giving production #4 event status if only for the joy of hearing twenty-three (count’em!) musicians bring Loesser’s music to full stereophonic life. They are Richard Adkins, Bob Allen, Sally Berman, Jennifer Bliman, Robert Coomber, Sharon Cooper, Katelyn Faraudo, K. T. Gilad, David Hill, Laura Jesson, Eric Johnson-Tamai, John Krovoza, Julie Long, Marissa Mcleod, assistant musical director Matthew Oden, Jeremy Reinbolt, June Satton, John Smith, Emily Schroeder, Darryl Tanikawa, Kelly Weaver, Amy Wilkins, and Scott Wright, and together they sound as impressive as anything you’d hear on The Great White Way.
The production looks as great as any you’d see on a regional theater stage thanks to USC student Jamie Lew’s first-rate set design (featuring three meticulously detailed locales), USC grad Joseph Kennedy’s fabulous period costumes, and USC grad Omar Dana’s gorgeous lighting design. Ovation and LADCC Award winner Philip G. Allen and USC’s Emma Bramble have teamed to create a sound design which not only mixes vocals and orchestra to crystal-clear perfection, but provide a number of well-executed effects as well.
Rebecca A. Esquivel is stage manager and fight captain, Kate Harrow technical director, Edgar Landa fight choreographer, Vika Teplinskaya scenic artist, G. Austin Allen and Alice Pollitt assistant stage managers, Selby Souza assistant scenic designer, Marly Hall costume assistant, Madigan Stehly assistant lighting designer, and David Crawford assistant sound engineer. Tina Crnko, Jason David, Landy Eng, Katt Ortega, Erin O’Sullivan, Kevin Paley, Vicki Pearlman, Molly Quinian, Jake Rush, Amy Sizer, Jonathan Stoller-Schoff, and Jose Maria Verduzco Parra serve as crew.
If past big-stage Bing Theatre productions of Brigadoon, Into The Woods, and City Of Angels have impressed this reviewer (and did they ever!), The Most Happy Fella may well be the most impressive of all. Anyone who loves musical theater even half as much as I do owes him or herself the thrill of seeing The Most Happy Fella as it is rarely if ever done in the budget-conscious 2010s. Trust me, Happy Fellas like USC’s only come along once in a blue moon. This one is not to be missed.
Bing Theatre, University Of Southern California, Los Angeles.
April 4, 2013