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THE MOST HAPPY FELLA

Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace

I suppose it's too much to hope that the first show in Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace's 1994-'95 subscription package is a harbinger of the season to come. But maybe, just maybe, the high standard set by The Most Happy Fella will be met not only by Drury Lane itself but by other theaters at least some of the time over the next year. One can wish.

Directed by Gary Griffin--who's making an auspicious start in his new position as Drury Lane's artistic director--this fine production makes no pretense of breaking new ground, but neither does it coast on its old-fashioned, unabashedly sentimental material. Griffin's staging meets Frank Loesser's flawed but beautiful musical-theater classic on its own terms, conveying the work's strengths with a skilled precision and winning warmth noticeably missing from, among other high-profile presentations of the past year, the same composer's Guys and Dolls at the Shubert.

A 1956 follow-up to Guys and Dolls and Loesser's charming score for the film Hans Christian Andersen, The Most Happy Fella is based on They Knew What They Wanted, Sidney Howard's 1924 Pulitzer-winning play about an older man who woos a wife by mail. Rather daring for its time in its nonjudgmental, even sympathetic treatment of adultery and illegitimacy, Howard's script was nevertheless a relic when Loesser turned to it at the suggestion of playwright Samuel Taylor; but Loesser was inspired by the romantic potential in the creaky old comedy-drama's quirky characters and quaint setting (California's Napa Valley in the 1920s). As fleshed out by Loesser--who also wrote the musical's script after Taylor dropped out of the project--the hero, Tony Esposito, is an Italian-immigrant grape grower whose financial success and father-figure popularity among his workers haven't quelled his secret insecurities (recalling the film Marty, released the year before Fella's premiere) about being "dumb" and "plain"--epithets bestowed on him by his long-dead mother and kept alive by his overprotective spinster sister Marie. Rosabella, the nickname Tony gives the woman he falls in love with at first sight (we don't learn her real name until the final curtain), is an equally unlikely musical-comedy protagonist: a not-so-young waitress who's candid about her sexual experience, trapped by the limited options available to a woman of her time and class, and quietly desperate in her openness to a marriage proposal from a well-off man she's never met. Painfully shy and embarrassed by his lack of fluency in English, Tony proposes to Rosabella in letters ghostwritten by his handsome hired hand Joe, whose photo Tony sends as his own picture. When Rosabella arrives for her wedding, she's appalled at Tony's deception but marries him anyway--then has an affair with Joe, which ends quickly but leaves her pregnant. She can't pretend the child is Tony's, because he's confined to a wheelchair following a car crash on the day of the wedding.

Loesser refocused the unabashed soap opera of the original plot, trimming Howard's religious and political trappings. (Joe is an itinerant Industrial Workers of the World agitator in the play, for example, but only an aimless drifter in the musical.) And its pat, cozy resolution is pure middle-aged male wish fulfillment: Rosabella falls in love with Tony despite his age and infirmity because of the sweetness of his soul, and Tony forgives his wife's infidelity and adopts her baby as his own.

Loesser's intense emotional investment in the story is what makes it convincing. As Susan Loesser reveals in A Most Remarkable Fella, her biography of her father, Tony was in many ways a self-portrait of the composer, who was haunted by his mother's lack of respect (though he was a successful tunesmith, she considered him "a crass anomaly in an other- wise intellectual family [and] an embarrassment," Susan Loesser says) and was heading toward a breakup with Lynn, his wife of 20 years. As Fella's original coproducer, Lynn Loesser recruited for the role of Rosabella the young soprano Jo Sullivan, who became the middle-aged Loesser's lover and later his wife--a turn of events that suggests Fella reflects the discontent stirring in its author (with Tony's almost incestuously overbearing sister Marie serving as a surrogate for Lynn Loesser and Rosabella foreshadowing Jo Sullivan).

Also enhancing the work's credibility is Loesser's beautiful and ambitious score. Broad in scope and widely varied in style, the music was criticized at the time of Fella's premiere as inconsistent; today, to an audience familiar with postmodernist appropriation, Loesser's eclecticism feels as fresh as his characters' pragmatic, unsanctimonious morality. Echoing such composers as Puccini, Menotti, Kurt Weill, Marc Blitzstein, and Virgil Thomson, Loesser's verismo-meets-vaudeville approach brings together grand opera and folk song, Broadway and jazz, Renaissance madrigals and quasi-serialist modernism--a stylistic collage appropriate to the story's confrontation between old- and new-world values, customs, and jargon (epitomized by the charming duet "Happy to Make Your Acquaintance," which signals Rosabella's warming toward Tony as she teaches him English). Like Weill's Street Scene and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Fella is an opera designed for Broadway--or a Broadway musical with operatic ambitions, depending on your frame of reference. (Loesser always resisted the term "opera," probably because he knew Porgy and Street Scene were financial failures their first times out.) Certainly Loesser's development of musical motifs is inferior to the structural brilliance of his predecessors. But his songs burst with alternately rapturous and rambunctious melodic inspiration, as one set piece after another showcases and challenges the leading and supporting players' virtuosity.

Fortunately the Drury Lane production's great strength is Griffin's casting. Operatic veteran Spiro Malas as Tony is the box-office draw; having starred in the 1992 Broadway revival that restored Fella's reputation after a long period of neglect, Malas can now tour the regional-theater circuit with this role for the rest of his career, like Yul Brynner in The King and I. He's an authoritative presence, though on opening night he seemed to be holding back vocally (the rich bass sound was there, but not the volume needed for the soaring climaxes). But the real star is Mary Ernster, the too-often-underused local soprano playing Rosabella. Matching her songs' classical vocal demands with power and confidence, Ernster is equally adept at conveying her conflicted character's passion, anxiety, and grit. It's a dazzling performance, though not a showy one.

Chris Garbrecht's creamy baritone warms the underwritten role of Joe; the always dependable Nancy Voigts is a brassy dynamo as Rosabella's humorous friend Cleo; and newcomer Ben Saypol is all aw-shucks charm as Cleo's Texas-transplant boyfriend Herman (their duet "Big D," a high-steppin' hoedown with real hoes, is a splashy delight). David Girolmo is amusing as the meddling mailman singing people the contents of their letters; Ronald Keaton's thin, dreamy tenor perfectly suits the town doctor's beautiful "Song of a Summer Night"; and Jonathan Weir, Phillip Pickens, and Mark-David Kaplan stop the show with their broad, campy comedy as a trio of Italian cooks--a sort of cross between Lady and the Tramp and La Cage aux Folles.

Most impressive are the clarity and consistency with which these and all the other actors combine personable individuality with group precision under the guidance of Griffin, conductor Thomas Murray (leading a fine band that relies with surprising effectiveness on synthesized orchestrations), and choreographer Nancy Teinowitz, whose dances epitomize the work's blend of bubbly buoyance and solid earthiness. With set designer Tim Oien's handsome backdrop painting evoking Napa Valley's lush sprawl, Griffin and company communicate Loesser's heart-on-sleeve hopefulness with a glowing, generous openness that makes The Most Happy Fella a most satisfying show. It has only two real problems: it's in the suburbs, off the route of many Chicago theatergoers, and it has to close eventually. Both problems could be remedied with the commercial transfer this superb production deserves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Kolack.

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