Sunday, May 1, 2016

"The Most Happy Fella"

The Most Happy Fella
Frank Loesser (Book, Music & Lyrics)
Based on Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted

Martin Rojas Dietrich as Tony & Amanda Johnson as Rosabella
When a musical begins with a waitress on stage’s edge taking off her shoes, rubbing her tired toes, and singing nasally in Texas drawl (addressing each of her toes, one by one, as if an old friend), where can it possibly all lead?  Believe it or not, into a gloriously melodic evening of near-opera proportions when 42nd Street Moon decides climatically to end its current, highly successful season with Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fellow.  With voices that soar in heavenly proportions, with direction that ensures not a laugh or a tear will be left unexpressed, and with a cast that almost explodes in its members’ evident enthusiasm and love of the roles they play, 42nd Street Moon revives this 1956 Broadway musical about an unlikely romance that must survive misunderstanding, deceit, and betrayal to find its tender fruition.

A San Francisco waitress, Amy, ends her long, grueling day in the late 1920s finding a man’s jeweled tiepin and a love note addressed to her as “Rosabella” along with a Napa Valley address and a proposal for marriage.  Tired of her boring life, she takes the bait and soon finds herself a mail-order bride to a guy named Tony who writes letters full of heart and soul.  The issue is, universally loved-by-all, Italian-immigrant, and vintner Tony – who just happens also to be short, very rotund, with heavy accent, and graying -- has sent to her a picture of his much younger, taller, All-American, and totally hunky foreman, Joe, claiming it is he.  As the entire Napa community prepares an Italian feast of pasta, pastry, and wine for a wedding, the excited, now-named Rosabella arrives and discovers the trick played on her just as Tony is wheeled in with major injuries from a car accident.  A hasty marriage vow before he is whisked to the hospital does not keep the real Amy – full of disappointed exasperation -- from falling, at least in one  passionate night, for the guy in the picture.  Reluctantly assuming her role as newly wed Rosabella, she subsequently and rather surprisingly falls in love with her new husband as he recovers in full body cast and wheelchair.  But that first night’s tryst of course comes back to haunt her and to jeopardize their now-blissful lives.  How it all works itself out is why we all come to the see a musical.

As Rosabella, Amanda Johnson dons a beautiful smile to match her pitch-perfect, prettily pulsating soprano voice as she dreamily sings of the guy writing her letters, “Somebody, Somewhere.”  With a voice and delivery often approaching a light aria on an opera stage, this Rosabella time and again all evening hits all her notes with the right emotional flair and musical ease. 

Her Tony, Martin Rojas Dietrich, brings his own full, operatic tenor vocals, floating with ease into soft, high realms his heavily exaggerated Italian words of sung love in “Rosabella.”  His charm is contagious as he sings with twinkling eyes and sparkling spirit “The Most Happy Fella,” surrounded and supported by a fully harmonizing, stage-filling cast. 

As a team, Rosabella and Tony are able to tread new heights of individual performance.  In the endearing “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance,” she tries to teach him some American etiquette where he repeatedly has trouble with the word “likewise”:  “Look a wise?” ... “No, likewise” ... Look a ways?   ... No, likewise” ... “Oh, like a wise, I’m sure.”  Later, the two join in the emotionally packed, heart-swelling love duet, “My Heart Is So Full of You,” where their locked eyes and soaring voices are love-making at its stage best.

Amanda Johnson & Noel Anthony
Rosabella’s first love on the Napa farm is Joe, Tony’s treasured foreman who is actually getting restless and looking to move on.  With an ability to build musical momentum from a hushed stillness to climatic, clear ending, Noel Anthony’s shines in “Joey, Joey, Joey” as he sings, “The wind blows to me, and she sings to me because I am one of her rambling kin.”  He later comforts the distraught Rosabella in “Don’t Cry” with a flow so easy and narrative-like in its sung delivery to be nothing short of stunning.

Love is truly in the summer air of Napa and strikes another couple that wins much audience applause and appreciation with their down-home humor, pleasing personalities, and abilities to sing and dance with perkiness and precision.  Nicole Frydman as Cleo (the pooped-out waitress in the opening “Ooh!  My Feet” who ends up in Napa, too) and Robbie Rescigno as farmhand Herman (in overalls) discover they both southerly slur their words similarly.  With high kicking gusto and farmyard calisthenics, they bring down the house singing and dancing in combined hoedown and Vaudeville style, “You’re from Big D” (as in “Dallas”).  The always happy and smiling Herman is a great balance to the more distrusting, quick-to-get-even Cleo. They get to argue it out in fun in “I Like Ev’rybody” before Herman later ensures the knot will be tied with his Cleo when he comes to her rescue, after which he excitedly triumphs in spirited song, “I Made a Fist.”

Calvin Smith takes on a more minor role as the local Doc, here to heal both Tony’s body and his spirit.  But, when he begins “Song of a Summer Night” with a tenderly soft, high and sustained “Oh,” he steps into a starring role singing about a “song of a thousand voices, a kind of lover’s music, music for the happy pair.”  With pretty, summer-evening harmony coming from the ensemble around him, Calvin Smith leaves us with satisfied sighs.

Winery chefs and farmhands combine a number of times into various trios and quartets to deliver some of the evening’s most rousing and memorable moments.  Jake (Michael Monagle) and Giuseppe (Scott Maraj) join Herman and Joe in a closely harmonized, barbershop quartet to sing probably the best-known song from Mr. Loesser’s score, “Standing on the Corner” (“watching all the girls go by”).  Later, Giuseppe teams with Pasquale (Daniel Olson) and Ciccio (Tim Wagner) for three, back-to-back, brisk numbers full of Italian words and feel.  “Abbondanza” (“Abundance”) and “Sposalizio” (“Wedding”) get everyone’s feet tapping and heads swaying in the audience as we all imagine being somewhere in the heart of old Italy.  When the same three welcome Rosabella to her wedding party singing  “Benvenuta” in their native tongue (“Welcome, dear bride ... pretty bride”),  each takes a turn in light opera solo style to render his own beautifully delivered greeting.

Everyone in this large cast of sixteen leaves at some point an individual mark of excellence, even when just a passing member of a large scene or as a part of the splendid, total ensemble numbers.  Directed and choreographed by Cindy Goldfield, the entire cast responds to her creativity and ingenuity with aplomb.  Dances are usually in the round and full of high jinx and energy. Stephen Smith’s costumes define the times, the place, and the personalities to a ‘t.’  Master Music Director Dave Dobrusky not only has ensured splendid delivery of all sung music, he of course is marvelous in his usual spot as ivory key whiz, this time ably joined for more musical depth by Nick Di Scala on woodwinds and Andres David Vera on cello.

I dare anyone to walk out of this 42nd Street Moon triumph, The Most Happy Fella, without a smile as wide as the Cheshire Cat’s.  It is just not possible when a director, cast, and production team excels to this extent. 

Rating: 5 E

The Most Happy Fella continues through May 15, 2016 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at  or by calling 415-255-8207.

Photos by David Allen

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for the great review, Eddie. Just one correction: It's actually a cast of sixteen. Director Cindy Goldfield just makes it seem like much more!