‘The Most Happy Fella’ brings joy to Goodspeed

By Don Bourret - ReminderNews
East Haddam - posted Mon., Oct. 14, 2013
'The Most Happy Fella' runs at Goodspeed Opera House through Dec. 1. Photo by Diane Sobolewski of Goodspeed Musicals. - Contributed Photo

Some of the happiest people these days are the audiences who have just seen “The Most Happy Fella,” now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam through Dec.1. This is a glorious production, powerfully sung, brilliantly acted, and exquisitely staged with Goodspeed’s usual genius for making the most of its small stage to transport us to another time and place.

What made this show so special for me, as well as my wife, was that I knew very little about it and, having few expectations, I was unprepared for the intense emotions and passions this show lays bare: loneliness, compassion, fear, insecurity, rage and, triumphantly above all, joy - the joy that comes from living a life full of kindness and love. Seeing the show for the first time had something of the freshness and excitement of a first love, which fit perfectly with the themes of the story.

With book, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser (“Guys and Dolls,” “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying”), the show opened on Broadway in 1956 and ran for almost 700 performances, and has been revived countless times. Goodspeed itself revived it in 1991, and that production moved to Broadway the following year. If you liked Loesser’s other shows, you’ll love this one.

Set in Napa Valley in the early 1950s, it is the story of the May-December romance between Tony Esposito, an older Italian grape farmer, and his younger mail-order bride, Rosabella, a city-wise, hardboiled diner waitress. These are two lost souls, tormented by loneliness, whom kindness and affection transform into lovers as the story unfolds. Tony is insecure about his age and looks and has a jealous sister who regularly reminds him of his faults. Rosabella did not expect an older and so unhandsome a man, so their road to romance is rocky. I’ll not mar your enjoyment of the show by including plot spoilers in this review, but know that we care deeply for them, and it’s a credit to the writing and more than 30 musical numbers that we feel all their pain and all their joy.

With a few notable exceptions, most of the songs may be unfamiliar to all but the most diehard “Fella” fans, but all serve the story perfectly, often unveiling characters’ raw emotions and passions. A few did get a lot of play at the time of the show’s original opening. In its signature song, “The Most Happy Fella,” the townspeople and Tony - sublimely happy but extremely nervous - raucously celebrate the pending arrival of his mail-order bride. Meanwhile, Herman (Kevin Vortmann), an amiable farmhand, and Cleo (Natalie Hill), Rosabella’s wisecracking best friend, are the requisite second romantic couple and provide welcome light comic touches in song and dance, notably in trumpeting their common hometown of Dallas in “Big D.”

As Joe, Tony’s foreman and unexpected rival for Rosabella’s affections, Doug Carpenter delivers a tour de force in his revealing aria, “Joey, Joey, Joey,” startling us with his thunderous baritone. The Four Lads’ version of “Standing On The Corner (Watching All The Girls Go By)” was a chart topper in the late ’50s, but in the show it’s just a humorous throwaway number sung by four farmhands bemoaning their inability to connect with girls. The show’s true showstopper is “My Heart Is So Full Of You,” the duet by Tony and Rosabella as they exalt in their newfound and unexpected love for each other in breathtaking voices that bring down the house. You would have to be made of stone to be dry-eyed when they finish.

Goodspeed’s casts are generally superb, but this 32-member company is remarkable for the power and richness of their voices; not just the leads, but even down into much of the ensemble, as though many were recruited from an opera company. These voices are particularly stirring as the ensemble occupies the aisles next to us to sing the sweet and sad “Song Of A Summer Night” a cappella.  Martin Sola, Greg Roderick and Daniel Berryman are three cooks who provide delightful comic opera touches in lively ensemble numbers (“Abbondanza,” “Sposalizio”) and as they welcome the bewildered Rosabella in “Benvenuta.”

This show, however, belongs to the two leads. Mamie Parris as Rosabella has a strong, commanding voice with dramatic skills to match. Watching her ascend from hard-bitten loneliness up through hope, bewilderment, rage, guilt and despair, finally to arrive at redemption and love, was pure pleasure. Bill Nolte’s Tony is the most unlikely romantic lead you can imagine: aging, fat, with poor English and anything but handsome. But his magnificent singing voice and moving performance give us a Tony whose soul brims with kindness and love of life: in the end, a man any woman could love. Nolte’s credits read like a Who’s Who of major theatrical leads, but it’s hard to imagine he ever was more commanding than now.

Of course, all credit belongs to director Rob Ruggiero (Goodspeed’s “1776,” “Big River,” “Camelot,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Show Boat,” “Carousel”) who adds another heartfelt jewel to his illustrious crown. And he again gets extraordinary support from Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design, John Lasiter’s lighting design and Thomas Charles LeGalley’s costumes. And Parker Esse’s dynamic choreography defies credibility in how he has more than two-dozen dancers cavorting about that tiny stage in perfect sync without casualties.

“The Most Happy Fella” runs through Dec. 1. Tickets are available through the box office (860-873-8668), open seven days a week, or online at goodspeed.org, where you also can details on show times.

This is Goodspeed’s 50th anniversary season. While its first show, “Good News,” was a bit weak, “Hello, Dolly” was a bases-loaded home run; and now “Fella” makes this a season to remember. Don’t miss this one. You’ll be smiling and happy all the way home and beyond. And go with friends.

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