EAST HADDAM, Conn. – Goodspeed Musicals’ production of Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella” is a rich, buoyant evening of musical theatre at its finest. A compelling story, which Loesser adapted from Sidney Howard’s “They Knew What They Wanted”, it is infused with a mix of Loesser’s Broadway and pop standards, soaring operatic solos and duets, and dance music that had more than one pair of toes tapping in the audience. Loesser, the genius behind “Guys and Dolls” and “How To Succeed”, has exceeded his genius status with “The Most Happy Fella”, and every song, dance, musical interlude and nuance of his score is to be savored.
“The Most Happy Fella” arrived on Broadway in 1956. It’s a little bit Broadway, a little bit opera, and a lot of entertainment. It’s a staple among the repertoire of musical theatres for its showtunes and standards and at opera companies worldwide, because its music demands opera quality voices with stamina. Showtune folk love the parade of standards, from “Standing On The Corner Watching All The Girls Go By”, a charts buster for The Four Lads, to “Big D”, so engagingly staged in East Haddam by Parker Esse and performed with exuberance by the Goodspeed ensemble.
This is Goodspeed’s second mounting of “The Most Happy Fella”. The 1992 production, with two piano accompaniment, moved to Broadway. This Goodspeed production has benefit of solid orchestrations by Dan DeLange, superb musical direction by Michael O’Flaherty, a top-notch pit orchestra, and a company which performs the Loesser score so well.
Set in the vineyards around Napa, “The Most Happy Fella” is a love story between an older man, Tony, and a much younger woman, Rosabella, a San Francisco waitress. They’ve been pen pals. To woo Rosabella to the vineyards, he sends a photo, not of himself, but of his much younger and more handsome farm foreman, Joe. In its day, some of the plot elements might have shocked audiences. Today, the show remains relevant, current, and compelling.
Rob Ruggiero’s staging brings out the fine points in material that overflows in excellence. Michael Schweikardt’s atmospheric sets turn the tiny Goodspeed stage into a never-ending vineyard. Thomas Charles LeGalley’s costumes are vintage 1950s. John Lasiter’s lighting dazzles through its subtlety.
All of the performances are terrific. Bill Nolte’s “Tony” is magnificently sung, and he commands the stage with emotion and musicality. Mamie Parris is a winning “Rosabella”. Doug Carpenter’s “Joe” is richly sung and powerfully acted. Natalie Hill and Kevin Vortmann are great comic sidekicks who give the high-stepping “Big D” its showstopper quality. A trio of chefs, Martin Sola, Greg Roderick, and Daniel Berryman perform the difficult “Abbodanza” with high spirits.
As folks celebrate Goodspeed’s 50th Anniversary season, and the theatre’s many contributions to the American theatre, kudos go to producer Michael Price and company for giving its audiences “The Most Happy Fella” as a sweet and savory fall treat.
Goodspeed Musicals presents “The Most Happy Fella”. Book, music, and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Directed by Rob Ruggiero. Music direction by Michael O’Flaherty. Choreography by Parker Esse. Sceninc design by Michael Schweikardt. Costume design by Thomas Charles LeGalley. Lighting design by John Lasiter. Sound design by Jay Hilton. Orchestrations by Dan DeLange. Cast: Bill Nolte (Tony), Mamie Parris (Rosabella), Ann Arvia (Marie), Doug Carpenter (Joey), Natalie Hill (Cleo), Kevin Vortmann (Herman).
Performances through December 1. Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT. Tickets: 860-873-8668 or www.goodspeed.org
Mark G. Auerbach studied theatre at American University and the Yale School of Drama. He’s worked for arts organizations and reported on theatre for newspapers and radio.