Monday, March 13, 2006

Review - The Most Happy Fella (New York City Opera)

Stage Buzz Review by Jere Williams

So last week I caught the opening night of the New York City Opera’s current production of the 1956 Frank Loesser musical The Most Happy Fella at the New York State Theatre up at Lincoln Center. As you are probably aware, this production marks the return to the New York stage of actor Paul Sorvino in the role of Tony.

This is the story of Tony, a vintner in 1930’s California, whose encounter with a diner waitress he calls Rosabella leads to a correspondence courtship and eventually their marriage. Problems arise when Rosabella realizes that instead of his own, Tony has sent a photo of his young, sexy ranch foreman Joe. How the ramifications of this play out is the stuff of the show.

I was very excited to see this production because this musical is rarely produced at all, much less with the huge, full orchestra that the NYCO provides for all its productions. And there’s no better way to experience a classic musical for the first time.

Paul Sorvino is really an ideal Tony in most respects. He certainly has a big enough voice to sing this difficult role and the stage presence to command such a large space. He’s also, as evidenced by his bio in the program, so steeped in Italiana that the accent and manner of this immigrant character seem to issue from his very pores. The only problem is that Sorvino is way too robust and energetic for a character that every other person on stage constantly refers to as being old and feeble. The age difference between Tony and his Rosabella is a major factor in the drama here and, while Sorvino may actually be age appropriate, it’s still difficult to see what all the fuss is about.

Lisa Vroman, a longtime Christine Daae a little further downtown at Phantom of the Opera, delivers a beautifully sung Rosabella. This is a challenging role for any actress. While she’s not the title character, it is Rosabella whose actions drive the slender plot and Vroman does an excellent job of keeping the audience interested in and focused on her desperate, lonely character and rooting for her to find some measure of happiness.

Ranch foreman Joe, the physical embodiment of hot, sweaty sex in musical theatre, is portrayed here by Ivan Hernandez. To be honest, there’s really not a whole lot to this character, but Hernandez does a perfectly serviceable job while also remaining fully clothed throughout. It was Hernandez who was most slighted by the cavernous State Theatre. When sex appeal is the main stock-in-trade of your character, it’s hard to evoke a physical response in an audience, some of whom are 6 blocks away. But he does well by his big ballad, the famous “Joey, Joey, Joey.”
Comic relief is handled by John Scherer and Leah Hocking as Herman and Cleo, a somewhat awkward ranch hand and a sardonic friend of Rosabella’s who find an unlikely simpatico when Cleo arrives at the ranch to keep her friend company. Both are excellent and funny and present well-rounded characters within the confines of their limited roles. Their story doesn’t really impact anything else that happens, but that’s very typical of mid-century musical theatre; they’re the comic duo and merely a sideline from the actual plot.

Does this show have problems? Sure…the first act seems VERY ballad heavy and director Phillip Wm. McKinley doesn’t really do anything to keep the pace up and moving. Consequently, the second act really seems like an entirely different show. It’s here that the Herman/Cleo comedy stuff comes in to take some of the weight of the central Tony/Rosabella story and here that the pacing really picks up and moves the show along.

Not much can be done about the size of the State Theatre. From my seat, very high up and far back in the Fourth Ring, it was impossible to see facial expressions clearly. However, the sound design for this show (by Abe Jacob) is a major improvement over the last production I saw in this space, NYCO’s last Sweeney Todd, two seasons ago. While I couldn’t quite make out faces, I could hear everything perfectly, making the ubiquitous super-titles all but unnecessary. Go see this production if you have a chance. You’re not soon likely to have the opportunity to drink in this lush score as played by such a full orchestra of this caliber. This alone is enough to make this Most Happy Fella an event. But there’s also a bonus…it’s a damn fine production up on the stage – as well as in the pit.

Book, Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Directed by Philip Wm. McKinley

New York State Theater
Lincoln Center
New York City Opera