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Frank Loesser
21 Mar 2006

City Opera’s Production of The Most Happy Fella

The New York City Opera opened its spring 2006 season with a new production of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, which premiered on Broadway fifty years ago in 1956.

The question of whether Fella is a musical or an opera has long been discussed: while it was premiered as a Broadway production (and revived there in 1979), in many ways the score is more complex than your average musical, indeed, more complex than even Loesser’s other hit musicals, including his beloved Guys and Dolls. Fella director Philip McKinley chose to reinstate two of Marie’s arias that had been cut from the 1956 production, a decision lauded by Loesser’s widow and advocate Jo Sullivan Loesser. The added character development and emotional content that was the result of this decision—not to mention the greater length of the production—certainly supports the arguments on the “opera” side of the debate.

In the end, though Fella offers all the best of Braodway musicals: rousing ensembles, sentimental love songs, and big, exciting dance pieces. Especially appealing about Fella is the way that Loesser, who wrote both the music and the book, interweaves dialogue and singing without any awkwardness; the words do not take a backseat to the music at any point during Fella, which keeps the drama moving.

At its heart, Fella—like most musicals—is a love story: it is a tale of how an older Italian immigrant living in the Napa Valley (Tony) falls in love with and seduces a young waitress from San Francisco (Rosabella—her real name is Amy, but no one calls her that). Tony and his Rosabella fall in love twice—once through a pen pal correspondence and once after they had been married already. Like all love stories, the lovers have to work through a number of obstacles, and this pair has more than their fair share. As the show unfolds they conquer the wide gap in their ages, a case of mistaken identity, a near fatal car accident, the machinations of Tony’s spinster sister, and the fallout from a one-night affair, which includes an unplanned-for pregnancy as well as hurt feelings.

The media leading up to the production focused on the highly anticipated performance of Paul Sorvino as Tony. Sorvino is a well-known actor with extensive film and television credits, and a Tony nominee for his performance in That Championship Season. Much the media buzz focused on whether Sorvino really can sing, and he shows in Fella that he certainly can. Additionally, Sorvino seduced his audience with his sweet portrayal of a sometimes bumbling bachelor, and he elicited much laughter from the audience with his impeccable timing in delivering lines. It is a role that could easily be cloying—Tony is just such a nice, lovable guy—but Sorvino creates the character so adeptly that one can understand why he is so adored by all the other characters. Any nervousness that Tommasini may have noticed in his review of the premier had vanished by the middle of the run.
The entire cast was energetic and appealing, but none more so in my opinion than Leah Hocking who played a relatively minor role as Rosabella’s co-worker and friend Cleo. Hocking was a delight to watch every time she came on stage, and her confidence and charisma started the production off on the right foot in the comical solo “Ooh! My Feet!” She also lit up the large ensemble and dance number “Big D,” and provided much needed comic relief throughout the second act with her beau Herman, played by John Scherer.

The sets, designed by Michael Anania for a 1991 production, were delightful with their rich colors and a homey feel in all the Napa Valley scenes. The stage was further brightened by the fun and costumes by Ann Hould Ward, which looked especially charming in the big dances scenes. Peggy Hickey was responsible for choreography that worked particularly well in the faster, more exuberant pieces; she also includes a more balletic number in the second act, which is beautiful, but slows down the story without providing much drama or interest—a rare moment in this delightful recreation of a classic.

New York City Opera’s Most Happy Fella continues through this weekend, the final show is March 25.

Megan Jenkins
The Graduate Center – CUNY

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