No Barriers to Love in “Most Happy Fella”
By Skip Sheffield
The rarely-performed Frank Loesser musical “Most Happy Fella” continues a limited, 12-performance run through Sunday, April 27 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach.
Ensemble singing is the strong suit of this distinctly dated 1956 show, based on the 1925 play “They Knew What They Wanted” by Sidney Howard. The show is almost like an operetta rather than modern Broadway musical, with more than 40 songs and the barest of sets, suggested by projected impressionistic paintings. The action is set in California’s Napa Valley in 1927, before the region became known as a wine hipster paradise. This is a concert version of the show, directed by former Caldwell Theatre artistic director Clive Cholerton. The large cast refers to manuscripts on music stands, but the principals have it pretty much down by heart.
Tony Esposito (Broadway veteran William Michals) is about as far from cool California hipster as you can be. A recent immigrant from Italy, Tony frets that he has no social graces and he barely speaks proper English. Now bald and in middle age Tony is lonely and longs for a wife. As a last resort, Tony puts out an awkward, hand-written request for a “mail-order bride” to a pretty young waitress he spots in San Francisco. To up his likelihood of acceptance, he leaves behind a treasured tie tack and a return address. He dubs the girl “Rosabella” for her beauty. When against odds she writes him back, Tony replies with a letter and a photo of his younger, more handsome ranch foreman, Joe (Jim Ballard).
Rosabella (Jessica Hershberg) is not her real name, but the girl we later learn is Amy is so impressed with Tony’s passion and sincerity (and Joe's photo), she shows up at his Napa Valley vineyard, suitcase in hand. You can imagine her shock and disappointment when she learns Tony is not a handsome young stud. Furthermore Tony has been injured in a truck accident and is in a wheelchair, so all he really has is the pity card.
The heart of Loesser’s script is Tony’s quixotic quest to win the heart of a true love he has lured by deception. Baritone Michals has been on this quest before as a most heartfelt Don Quixote last year in PBD’s production of “Man of La Mancha.”
Rosabella will have her own deception to add to the romantic conflict. Pretty much the rest of “Most Happy Fella” is comic business with a diverse cast of characters led by Rosabella’s friend Cleo (Dance Captain Laura Hodos), an otherwise cheerful waitress with sore feet; Ken Clement as a goofy postman; Shane R. Tanner as Herman, a Texan who inspires one of the score’s hits, “Big D” (as in Dallas), Jeni Hacker as Tony’s bitter, disapproving sister Marie, and in his PBD debut, Slow Burn Theatre executive director Matthew Korinko in several roles. The score’s biggest hit is the upbeat, stand-alone “Standing on the Corner.” The loveliest is the duet “My Heart is So Full of You.”
The songs are in a crazy mish-mash of styles and tempos, but all beautifully sung with gorgeous harmonies, backed by two onstage pianists, including musical director Howard Breitbart.
If you believe true love conquers everything, this is a show you can embrace warmly. Tickets are $40. Call 561-514-4042 or go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.