“The Most Happy Fella,” Frank Loesser’s rarely revived 1956 musical, opened Monday night in a glorious Theo Ubique Cabaret Theater production. And by the time it was all over I was ready to tack a sign on this inimitable Rogers Park storefront operation’s door that would read: The Little Opera House on Glenwood Avenue.
‘THE MOST HAPPY FELLA’
When: Through May 7
Where: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theater, 6970 N. Glenwood
Tickets: $34 – $39 (with $25 optional dinner)
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
Loesser, of course, was the man who created “Guys and Dolls,” and gave voice to the streetwise gamblers and sassy showgirls of Noo Yawk captured in the stories of Damon Runyon. But in “The Most Happy Fella,” penned six years later (and based on Sidney Howard’s 1924 play, “They Knew What They Wanted”), he threw caution to the winds and radically shifted emotional gears — exchanging his inimitable gift for urban romantic comedy for a heartbreakingly lovely romance. The result was a musical that dances on the edge of opera, with a nearly sung-through score of 40 songs, many of which could easily qualify as arias.
Now, at Theo Ubique, where artistic director Fred Anzevino clearly has tapped into the spirit of his Italian immigrant heritage, the musical soars on the sound of strong, beautiful, unamplified voices. Best of all, the production is free of any trace of cynicism, though it has plenty of humor in addition to emotional honesty. Without making any apologies, it takes you into that increasingly rare territory — the irony-free zone — and comes out a winner.
The story told here is set against the lush vineyards of California’s Napa Valley in 1927 and is about love and loneliness, deception and confession. In many ways it draws on one of the oldest stories ever told, with characters who suffer deeply from the mistakes they make and ultimately find a way to heal both themselves and those they’ve hurt.
Tony (William Roberts, a recent transplant to Chicago whose rich baritone and solid acting should make him a real contender) is an aging Italian vintner who never married, believing he was neither smart nor handsome enough to win a girl. But when a young, pretty — and equally lonely — young waitress, Rosabella (Molly Hernandez), catches his eye at a restaurant in San Francisco, he leaves her an amethyst tie pin but appends no name. (Hernandez , a superb young actress with a magical soprano voice and a lovely, expressive face, is a sophomore at Loyola University Chicago, but her star power is undeniable.)
Rosabella has no memory of the man, but he begins to write to her, and their correspondence leads to his sending her what he claims is a photograph of himself. Instead, it is a picture of Joe (Ken Singleton, whose easy sensuality and warm voice are ideal for the role of the classic American wanderer), the handsome young foreman of his property who Tony has grown exceptionally fond of, but who is planning to move on.
Tony’s ruse clearly works, and Rosabella agrees to be a “mail-order bride” for this man who turns out to be quite different from whom she was led to believe. Of course Rosabella feels betrayed when she discovers the ruse, but she agrees to a shotgun wedding enacted after Tony suffers a serious accident. She also has a brief tryst with Joe that she very quickly comes to regret. For as it happens, she gradually grows to love and forgive Tony, and that forgiveness is ultimately reciprocated in an important way.
Roberts’ big arias are rendered with such heat and sweetness that you immediately ache for him. Hernandez must play the whole gamut of emotions in her vocally demanding arias and she nails each and every shift. Together they turn “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance,” a song that could easily seem too precious, into a very real and utterly beguiling “getting to know you” scene.
Offering continual comic relief is the romance between Rosabella’s friend and fellow waitress, Cleo (the exuberant Courtney Jones, who immediately engages the audience with “Ooh! My Feet!). A vibrant, no-nonsense, good-time girl originally from Dallas, she is invited by Tony to Napa Valley so that Rosabella will feel less lonely. Once there she stirs the heart of Herman (a fine comic turn by Joe Giovannetti), an irrepressibly accepting fellow who also just happens to be from Texas, but whose gullibility gets on Cleo’s nerves. The two have a meeting of Texas minds in the rousing number, “Big D,” winningly choreographed by James Beaudry.
Roy Brown, Erik Dohner and Jonathan Wilson add their rich voices and high spirits to the mix as the Country Boys, with Ryan Armstrong as the savvy Postman and David Gordon Johnson as a priest. Sarah Simmons brings her formidable voice to the role of Marie, Tony’s sister, who in many ways is the loneliest and most bitter character in the story.
Adam Veness’ lovely set — a painted backdrop of the green hills of Napa framed by a grape arbor – is enhanced by costume designer Bill Morey’s fine collection of period floral frocks. And as always, music director Jeremy Ramey makes his piano sound like a symphony orchestra, with superb help from violinists Hillary Butler and Chuck Evans and cellist Desiree Miller.
This is a “Most Happy Fella” fully worthy of a prize-winning vintage label.