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Theater Review: ‘The Most Happy Fella’ Continues Goodspeed’s Reputation For Excellent Productions

Photo: Diane Sobolewski

“Happy To Make Your Acquaintance”: Tony (Bill Nolte) and Rosabella (Mamie Parris) fall in love in The Most Happy Fella, now playing at Goodspeed Opera House through December 1.

EAST HADDAM — Frank Loesser is one of my all time artistic heroes. Probably best known for writing the music and lyrics for Guys and Dolls, and four other Broadway shows, in his relatively short lifetime he produced more than 700 other songs. Those works ranged from “Heart and Soul” (which many of us learned to plunk out on the piano) and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” (which he wrote while serving in the Army-Air Force during World War II) to songs for Hollywood movies in the 1930s and 40s (Marlene Dietrich belting out “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” in Destry Rides Again and Danny Kaye singing “Thumbelina,” “Inchworm” and “Anywhere I Wander” in the film Hans Christian Anderson).

When he was asked why he only wrote five shows, Loesser said “I don’t write slowly; it’s just that I throw out fast.”

The Most Happy Fella, which opened on Broadway in 1956, came between Guys and Dolls (1950) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961). Loesser wrote the book as well as the music for this one, basing it on a 1920s play by Sidney Howard, called They Knew What They Wanted.

Howard’s play, about an aging Italian-American grape farmer in the Napa Valley, who arranges for a mail-order bride by sending her a photo of one of his younger farm-hands, was a serious socio-political work shaped by the hardships of the Great Depression. In writing it as a musical, Loesser chose to ignore Howard’s focus on politics and labor issues, and stuck with the love story.

On a trip to San Francisco, middle-aged bachelor Tony Esposito is instantly smitten with the young waitress who served him in a diner. Too shy to speak to her, he leaves a love letter on a napkin (along with his amethyst tie pin) saying that he wants to marry her, and asking that she write back to him. Not knowing her name, he addresses her as Rosabella.

 Although she has no memory of this mysterious customer, she is intrigued enough to write back, and after a correspondence of several months, sends him a photograph, asking for one of him in return. Because Tony’s sister Marie, who keeps house for him, is jealous of this potential interloper, she scornfully assures him that he is too old, and too ugly to attract such a pretty young woman. Doubting himself, Tony tears up his own portrait and sends a snapshot of Joe, the handsome, but footloose foreman of the ranch, who has just announced that he plans to be moving on.

On the night scheduled for Rosabella to arrive, with friends and neighbors  gathered at the ranch for a blowout abbondanza party, Tony has a terrible accident on the way to the station to meet her. Instead, she catches a ride from the station master, sees Joe, and they have a one night stand.

While a heavily bandaged Tony spends most of the second act in a wheelchair, the sweetness and generosity of his character shine through, slowly becoming apparent to Rosabella, even as she discovers she is carrying Joe’s child. As The Ladies Home Journal used to ask, Can this marriage be saved? Well, did Beauty come to love the Beast?

Although it has the requisite chorus of handsome cowboys and flirtatious young ladies, The Most Happy Fella is not a light musical in the vein of Oklahoma! (or Guys and Dolls). There is less humor in the comedy, and fewer one-liners; it is more of an operetta, with the characters more apt to sing what’s on their mind than speak it, and their voices are powerful, rich and operatic.

That said, the production currently at Goodspeed is up to that company’s usual perfectionist standards. Rob Ruggiero’s direction, Parker Esse’s choreography and Michael O’Flaherty’s music are all fine. Beyond that, Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design, Thomas Charles LeGalley’s costumes, and John Lasiter’s lighting all combine to provide a visual experience that enriches the stage and transports the audience, so that you never want to take your eyes off the stage.

The principal performers are uniformly excellent. As Tony, Bill Nolte’s physical limitations are negated by the joyfulness that infuses his belief in the possibility of happiness, while Mamie Parris makes Rosabella understandable as the shy, proud, trusting waif who boards a bus expecting to marry Matthew McConaughey and discovering she is promised to Ernest Borgnine.

Natalie Hill as Rosabella’s good-hearted best friend, Cleo; Doug Carpenter as Joe, Ann Arvia as Tony’s jealous sister, and Kevin Vortmann as Cleo’s chuckleheaded love interest round out the main characters, and finally Greg Roderick, Martin Sola and Daniel Berryman as a trio of Italian chefs provide some energetic comic relief that makes you wish they’d come to your house.

(Performances continue until December 1, with a special schedule for Thanksgiving week. For curtain and ticket details call 860-873-8668 or visit Goodspeed.org.)

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