Laura Benanti, Cheyenne Jackson and Shuler Hensley Present a Glowing Most Happy Fella at Encores!

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03 Apr 2014

Cheyenne Jackson
Cheyenne Jackson
Joan Marcus

City Center Encores! presented the opening night of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella April 2. Playbill.com was there.

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Audiences "standing on the corner" outside City Center last night were "warm all over" with a smile and a glow, basking in the "abbondanza" of Frank Loesser melody that is The Most Happy Fella. Encores! continued their 2014 season with one of their most bountiful, emotional offerings in years.

Loesser's 1956 musical is his masterwork, a big and overstuffed work — containing more than 40 distinct songs and musical themes — which was a significant hit of the 1955-56 season (although overshadowed in the awards and memory by the competitor that opened seven weeks earlier, My Fair Lady). The abundance of song — Loesser called it "a musical with a lot of music" — made it unlikely screen material; and the vocal demands of the title character, written to be sung by a middle-aged, operatic baritone, has made the show relatively difficult to effectively cast.

Encores! is just the place for musically-rich if unwieldy Broadway classics, and the folks at City Center have lavished the show with a full orchestra of 38. (That's more musicians than The Bridges of Madison County, Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys and The Book of Mormon combined.) The determination to mount Most Happy Fella was presumably spurred by the ability to line up suitable stars, namely Shuler Hensley (Oklahoma!) as the immigrant rancher Tony; Laura Benanti (Gypsy) as the mail-order bride Rosabella; and Cheyenne Jackson (Finian's Rainbow) as the smooth-and-handsome foreman Joe.



The story — based on Sidney Howard's 1924 Pulitzer-winning play They Knew What They Wanted — is an oft-told tale: Attractive young woman marries middle-aged man but gets pregnant by the other guy. In this case, Loesser took a play with three major roles; fleshed out the plot — he wrote his own libretto as well as music and lyrics — by devising three more principals and adding a highly effective Italian-singing comedy trio; surrounded them by a whole community of "neighbors and neighbor's neighbors;" and setting the thing awash in song. Encores! gives us 38 actors to match the 38 musicians, putting the show on a scale that is virtually impossible economically today. The last time The Most Happy Fella played Broadway, at the Booth in 1992, there was a cast of 27 and a band of two.)

All of which wouldn't amount to much were it not for Loesser's score, brim-filled with ballads, character songs, comedy songs, Italian-language trios and even a droll quartet which became an unlikely pop hit, "Standing on the Corner (Watching All the Girls Go By)". Time exigencies demanded condensing the three acts into two. The resulting cuts, in the adaptation by Bill Rosenfield, are all but transparent, consisting of the brief Postman's song; a few choruses of dance music; a very few dialogue exchanges; and a short scene with two now-absent children. (When City Center first mounted the show in 1959, the little girl was played by a ten-year-old from Ozone Park named Bernadette Peters.)

Laura Benanti and Heidi Blickenstaff
photo by Joan Marcus

Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (of The Book of Mormon and this season's Aladdin) has a perfect touch for this genre. The staging is swift and efficient, the principals act their roles especially well (despite the limited rehearsal time), and the show's standout production number "Big D" — as in "Big D little A double-L A S" — is pure joy. But song after song comes across, with the audience beaming at such delights as "Benvenuta," "Happy to Make Your Acquaintance," and the quartet "How Beautiful the Days" (played against a breathtakingly beautiful stage picture from designers John Lee Beatty and Ken Billington). On a smaller scale, Nicholaw's staging of "Standing on the Corner" — with the awkward-boy quartet bending and swaying with hands in pockets and belt loops while all those girls go by — is delectable.

Benanti and Hensley take full control of the show. Benanti — whose comic brilliance was been on display in such items as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown — does a stunning job as the 'Frisco waitress. This is a pure musical comedy role, in the Rodgers & Hammerstein vein, but Benanti is unexpectedly perfect. Hensley brings more acting ability to the role than you get from one of the ex-opera singers who usually play the role, making this "dumb, funny-looking" immigrant who "ain't young no more" sympathetic and believable. At the opening night performance he didn't quite have the vocal strength to launch his several arias, but his acting more than compensated. Jackson, in the smaller role of the foreman, gave one of his finest stage performances yet and — needless to say — scored with "Joey, Joey, Joey" and the seduction song "Don't Cry."

Heidi Blickenstaff ([title of show]) is a pure delight as Cleo, the waitress with achin' feet who is first cousin to Oklahoma's Ado Annie. She was well matched by Jay Armstrong Johnson as Herman, the ranch-hand who likes everybody. Armstong was impressive as the young contestant in last season's Hands on a Hardbody, doubly impressive as a strong-singing Anthony in last month's Sweeney Todd at the New York Philharmonic, and here turns out to be a pure comedian and capable dancer. The central cast is rounded out by expert jazz singer Jessica Molaskey, who does her best at making something out of the problematic role of Tony's jealous sister Marie. (When the show ran overlong during the 1956 tryout, significant material was cut from Marie's role leaving the character underdeveloped.) Special mention is also deserved by Zachary James, Brian Calì and Bradley Dean as the Italian trio and Kevin Vortmann as the sweet-singing Doctor.

Prime among the splendors of the evening is the work of Rob Berman and the Encores! Orchestra. The music blanketed the auditorium, leaving the audience enthralled and offering a prime performance of Don Walker's masterful orchestrations. Present-day economics being how they are, we cannot expect to again see a full Most Happy Fella so well performed and well played — which makes all the more reason for musical theatre lovers to head to City Center before the seven-performance run ends April 6.

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Laura Benanti and Shuler Hensley
Photo by Joan Marcus