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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE MOST HAPPY FELLA
at New York City Center

GRAND OPERA
By MATT WINDMAN

  Cheyenne Jackson and Laura Benanti/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Even by the characteristically supersized standards of the Encores! series at City Center, where golden-age musicals receive week-long concert-style revivals, its new production of the 1956 operatic musical The Most Happy Fella is pretty damn big, sporting a 38-person cast and a 38-member orchestra. There are even painted backdrops that fill the entire stage.

Anyone who remembers the Lincoln Center Theater revival from 20 years ago, which offered just two pianos instead of a full orchestra, is sure to appreciate director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s highly enjoyable staging. The same goes for those who endured the 2006 New York City Opera production, which featured an embarrassingly miscast and vocally challenged Paul Sorvino. Although Nicholaw turns “Big D” into a rousing showstopper, the emphasis remains on the songs and characters. 

Penned by songwriter Frank Loesser, who is better remembered for the jazzier, sharper, more cartoonish Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, this is one of the richest, most gloriously romantic scores ever written. (As it happens, a one-night concert production of Guys and Dolls was produced just a block away at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, April 3.)

The musical begins with Tony (the excellent Shuler Hensley), a middle-aged Italian immigrant, falling for a pretty young waitress (the always exquisite Laura Benanti). Too scared to introduce himself, he leaves her his tiepin and writes her a love note, wistfully calling her "Rosabella."

Touched by his kindness, they exchange letters, and she even agrees to marry him. But Tony, scared she will find him unattractive, sends her a photo of his younger foreman Joey (heartthrob Cheyenne Jackson) instead of his own, leaving her shocked upon arrival at his ranch. Act two observes how they are able to rekindle their romance in spite of these difficulties. The final scene, where the characters selflessly forgive each other, contains some of the most moving dialogue ever written for a musical.

The casting of Hensley and Benanti is questionable, as Hensley looks rather young and frail for Tony and Benanti is perhaps not young enough for Rosabella, and the characters’ age difference is a central conflict that is reflected in many lyrics. And while Hensley has a fine voice, it lacks the operatic edge required for the score. Even so, their acting is exquisite throughout.

The rest of the cast is superb, particularly Heidi Blickenstaff and Jay Armstrong Johnson as the secondary romantic couple. They possess that perfect blend of cute and sexy. Jackson also shines as Joey, as does Jessica Molaskey as Tony’s overprotective sister.

It’s hard to imagine this production transferring to Broadway, both in light of its size and its unabashed sincerity. As such, it represents yet another example of Encores! continuing importance and singularity in reviving classic musicals in the classic style – without scaled-down orchestrations, mechanized scenery or film actors lacking vocal chops. And unlike the gala concerts offered by Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic, City Center offers many tickets at affordable prices. 

 


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