Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella is an operatic tragedy magically transformed into a musical comedy. Much of its affecting intensity, as well as its odd moments of awkwardness, are a result of this curious juxtaposition. Its plot rests upon mistaken identity, deception, despair and adultery -- not the sort of mix usually associated with romantic comedy -- yet the show is romantic to its bones. As the title promises, despite all the ominous foreshadowing it's abundantly clear throughout that no one is going to come to any harm. Loesser's wide-ranging tunes and witty lyrics carry off the masquerade with hardly a ripple of uncertainty. Music, like love, conquers all.
Set in a 1920s California pictured as an immigrant's land of milk and honey, The Most Happy Fella recounts the unlikely May-September romance of a young San Francisco waitress (Teri Hansen) and a middle-aged Italian-immigrant Napa Valley rancher who, himself unseen, spots her on a trip to the city and successfully courts her by mail, calling her his "Rosabella." Tony (Spiro Malas) is a tender but bearish, balding bachelor, so when the time comes to exchange photos with his fiancee, he sends a picture of his handsome foreman, Joe (Christopher Monteleone), instead of his own. When Rosabella arrives for her wedding, the resulting erotic confusion is compounded by both the jealousy of Tony's sister Marie (Denise Thorson) and Tony's own near-fatal accident. One might forgive the bewildered and suddenly married Rosabella her momentary dalliance with Joe -- but hers does not promise to be the sort of marriage that comedy, let alone dreams, is made on.
But Loesser was apparently undaunted by his brooding gargoyle of a plot, and he resolved the problems as only he knew how: by songwriting them away. The show, dominated by its music with only a smattering of incidental dialogue, is more literally operatic in form than most Broadway shows, and the musical styles range from demotic laments (the opening tune is an exhausted waitress sighing "Ooh! My Feet!") to lush quartets brimming with complex emotions ("How Beautiful the Days") to soaring love duets ("My Heart is So Full of You"). Indeed, the unusual darkness of the story allowed Loesser to explore a range of emotions otherwise uncommon to Broadway shows, and to weave them into music rich with surprising nuance. When the more famous showstoppers ("Standing on the Corner," "Big D") arrive, full of melody and bluster, they seem almost intruders from some glitzier and less subtle show.
The 1992 Broadway revival, also led by Spiro Malas, clearly earned its accolades, and TUTS' re-staging is faithful and effective. Malas is an endearing if not stage-dominating actor, but he more than compensates with the deep power and emotional range of his voice. Teri Hansen is a sweet-voiced and engaging Rosabella, and the flirtatious interplay between the two principals, on songs like "Happy to Make Your Acquaintance," is delightfully convincing. Denise Thorson and Christopher Monteleone sing well the somewhat odds-body roles of Marie and Joe, and Leah Hocking is a vivacious breath of air as Rosabella's no-nonsense friend Cleo. The only clanging note in the production is Cleo's beau, Herman, played and strainingly sung by Don Stephenson as such a hopeless Texas goober that one suspects that his director, Susan Rosenstock, might be a Sooner saboteur (the program notes are inconclusive). The farce gets its predictable guffaws, but it also makes disappointing hash of Loesser's sly parallelism with the main plot, of strong, independent women matched with ingenuous but unassertive men.
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Because certain narrative elements never quite work and the California setting seems almost arbitrary ("I'm the most happy fella in the whole-a Napa Valley" is not a rhyme for the ages), The Most Happy Fella is not the perfect combination of comic story and song that is Loesser's more famous triumph, Guys and Dolls. But it has an unusual and powerful charm that one associates with those un-formulaic Broadway shows -- Oklahoma!, Carousel -- that took chances and won. Despite its sometime awkwardness, this show is a most happy winner.