I’m doing this article on Frank Loesser’s master work even though it was performed as part of the NY Encores! season for only seven performances, and if you didn’t see it this past week, you won’t be able to. It closed as scheduled on April 6th. I’m hoping it will be recorded, and if it is, I urge you to pick up the CD because it’s truly a glorious score, and you will never hear it performed better than by this hastily assembled, hastily rehearsed, incredible cast made up of the best of Broadway.
I have one other purpose in bringing it to your attention; I’ve seen every one of the Encores! concert stagings since Fiorello! which began the series in 1994. They do three shows every season, and there’s never been a real dud, not in twenty years. So if you’re a fan of the best in musical theatre, you might consider coming on up to see us during a period when one of them is on the boards at City Center, which is their New York home. I have no fiduciary interest in Encores!, but I’ve had so many terrific afternoons with them, I thought I’d pass that news along.
Oh yes, and after each Saturday matinee, they hold a talk back with the cast, directors and the occasional special guest that is always interesting. This past Saturday the guest was Jo Sullivan Loesser, the composer’s widow, and as she was the show’s first leading lady during its original Broadway run in 1956, she had some interesting tales to tell about that. But now, about the just closed version …
For starters, it boasted a company of 38 gifted actors, singers and dancers with the support of an orchestra of equal size and quality, under the musical direction of Rob Berman, using the original Don Walker orchestrations. This piece, as much opera as it is musical comedy, boasts a score of over 20 songs, and that’s without recitatives, underscoring, overture, entr’acte and finale. Mr. Loesser composed it, wrote the lyrics, and wrought a book that holds the score together beautifully, gleaned from the Sidney Howard success of the 1924 season on Broadway with his play They Knew What They Wanted.
But Loesser enlarged the scope of the play, even though it had won the Pulitzer Prize. He added a second love story to the central one referred to in the original title. He did that to be certain he could include the more accessible musical comedy numbers that successful musicals of the 1950s required, so he gave the leading female character, Amy, a friend called Cleo and though ranch manager Joe figures in the play as well as the musical, his three beautiful numbers elevate him to proper prominence as the third side of the musical’s romantic triangle. The second couple, Cleo and a ranch hand named Herman, were made for each other, and they discover that early on; from the moment they learn that each is from “Big D”, better known as Dallas.
The musical begins on a light note, with Amy and Cleo waiting tables in a hash joint, each complaining about the “mile after mile after mile” they must walk each day serving their turnover crowds, about the mashers who are always coming on to them. If anything, Cleo would seem to be the prominent character, for she’s got a beauty of a book song, “Ooh, My Feet” which introduces her and endears her to us (more than endears; as played by Heidi Blickenstaff, we are all a little bit in love by the time she’s through with it). But her pal Amy emerges as the major protagonist when she finds what at first seems to be a mash note from a customer who’d been too shy to talk to her, an Italian-American whose English was poor, and whose insecurities about himself as a suitor pique Amy’s curiosity about him, enough for her to begin a correspondence with him at his request. When, after some time, he asks her to come to Napa Valley to his ranch for a visit, she’s intrigued enough to say yes. Her suitor, ranch owner Tony Esposito, too frightened to send her the picture of himself that she requested, sends instead a photo of his hunky ranch foreman Joe, who is a travelin’ man, one who has a wandering eye for the local ladies and another for the far off horizon.
For the rest of the tuneful and moving evening, we wallow in the ups and downs of the Amy-Tony relationship and we relish the other one between Cleo and Herman as well. How could we not, when melody after melody comes at us to lift us? These are all needy people, and the two central characters are lonely and vulnerable. Wrong choices have plagued Amy (whom Tony calls Rosabella because she reminds him of a rose in bloom) all her life, and though she’s still young and attractive she has few prospects, for she has quality and self respect and seems to attract only men who want the obvious from her. Tony is the first to offer kindness with no strings attached, lumbered only by his over possessive sister Marie, who has needs of her own that don’t allow much room for another woman to interfere in their life together. She wants the two of them, with no children or parents between them, to be together as they grow quietly into old age. Tony has another dream. He “wants to get married.”
Shuler Hensley and Laura Benanti, two rising musical theatre stars, are here offered the roles of their still young careers, and when great roles meet major talents, sparks fly and audiences ignite. The aria that lets us in on Amy’s aching heart (“Somebody Somewhere”) the romantic duet between them (“My Heart Is So Full of You”), the charming duet that draws them closer to each other (“Happy To Make Your Acquaintance “), a solo for Amy, “Warm All Over”, as she begins to fall in love, and so much more embrace us and deliver supreme satisfaction as great musical theatre can do and these days rarely does.
When you combine these lush melodies with the equally exquisite songs that Cheyenne Jackson as Joe sings throughout the evening, it’s icing on the cake. Jackson has been useful in several musicals (Xanadu, Damn Yankees, Finian’s Rainbow) in recent seasons, but Fella allows him a more interesting character, and he brings great humanity to him. Jackson’s voice is mellow and rich, and his rumination on the winds that whisper to him, calling his name “Joey, Joey”, casts a spell and stops the show. Then throw in the musical comedy delights of “Big D” and “Standing On The Corner” and you’ve got yourself one very memorable evening.
The ubiquitous Casey Nicholaw, who staged the still running smash The Book of Mormon and the just opened Aladdin, directed and choreographed this magnificent Most Happy Fella, and it’s quite an achievement. “Standing on the Corner” is fun when it’s just sung at a microphone by a soloist, but when four cowhands, including the adorable Herman of Jay Armstrong Johnson, get into it with its original harmonies and orchestration, now choreographed with and an eye toward the charmingly comical or the comically charming, it’s a rouser indeed. “Big D” starts as a duet for Cleo and Herman, but Nicholaw allows it to grow into a smashing production number as all of his singers and dancers join them to celebrate. Irresistible.
I guess you’ve figured it out. I’m still, two days later as I write this, abuzz and aglow. I want to send some of that your way along with the suggestion that you Google “Encores at City Center” in time to get a crack at seats for Irma La Douce which will complete the current season in May. Happy Hunting (and I mean in your search for tickets, not to be confused with the musical that bears that title).
The Encores! production of The Most Happy Fella closed April 6, 2014.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award