The Most Happy Fella
At the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—“The Most Happy Fella” is one of the least revived hit musicals in Broadway history. We will never run out of new productions of “Chicago” or “Cabaret” but “The Most Happy Fella” sits idle with only a couple of major revivals since it opened in New York City in 1956 and scored a creditable 676-perfrmance run. Theo Unique has achieved a special niche in Chicagoland theater by taking such under used shows and installing them on their postage stamp size stage with joyous, often amazing results. And so it is with “The Most Happy Fellow.”
Maybe “The Most Happy Fella” has too much music for the tastes of a typical theater audience. The Theo revival lists 41 separate musical numbers, a blend of Broadway pop, operetta, and opera. It demands a large cast of trained singers who can perform the rich assortment of arias, duets, trios, quartets and ensemble songs. It’s a demanding show to cast and its opera-style running time probably doesn’t help it.
The show is the creation of Frank Loesser, the of “Guys and Dolls”-“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” fame. Loesser wrote the book and lyrics and composed the score. He adapted the musical from Sidney Howard’s play “They Knew What They Wanted,” which won the 1924-25 Pulitzer Prize for drama but is now pretty much forgotten.
"The Most Happy Fella” is a riff on the familiar May-and-December love story. It is set in the winegrowing region of Napa Valley in California. The time period, judging by the costumes, is vaguely the 1920’s. Tony Esposito, a first generation middle aged Italian-American, owns a vineyard in the valley. Feeling the need to get married, Tony woos by mail a San Francisco waitress named Rosabella, who once served him in a San Francisco restaurant. Anticipating that his age would work against him in pursuing the younger woman, he sends her a photo of Joe, his hunk of a foreman. Rosabella, who aches to get out of her dead end waitress job, accepts Tony’s proposal of marriage by letter and travels to the vineyard to start a new life.
Photo by Adam Veness
Tony is badly injured in a truck accident as he drives to the rail station to pick up his new bride, so she arrives at the vineyard alone. She meets Joe, the foreman, and realizes that Tony has deceived her. In her anger and disappointment she allows herself to be seduced by Joe and finds herself pregnant a few months later. At first Tony is outraged but soon comes to accept Rosabella as his wife, as she has earlier accepted him as her husband.
At Theo Ubique, William Roberts plays Tony and Molly Hernandez plays Rosabella. They are both a bit young for their roles but that’s all the criticism you’ll hear from me about either. Their performances are up to the highest standard by any theatrical measuring stick. Roberts is a trained opera singer and an expressive actor who brings alive Tony’s warmth and decency and passion for his new bride. His explosion of anger when Rosabella haltingly informs him of her pregnancy is volcanic but he is just as persuasive in his recognition that he loves this woman and will cherish her and the baby. Roberts’s rendition of “She Gonna Come Home Wit’ Me” put a lump in my throat.
Molly Hernandez is a 19-year old college sophomore who delivers an incandescent Rosabella. Hernandez not only has a radiant voice but she endows the character with emotional shadings that transcend acting. In one late scene, Rosabella sits alone in a semi-dark corner of the stage while three other characters sing loudly and passionately. Without making a sound, her Rosabella hugs herself in pain and despair leading to joy and gratitude as Tony sings of his forgiveness. It’s as complete and unforced piece of acting as you’ll see on any local musical stage this season.
It’s one thing for a production to strike it rich with its two star performances. But here is a show in which every player brings his or her character alive with unforced realism, several performers taking multiple roles. The actors often sing directly to the spectators, some within touching distance, but those moments are charming and humorous, not an affected attempt to score easy points with the audience.
There is fine support from Courtney Jones as Rosabella’s waitress best friend Cleo, Ken Singleton as Joe, and Sarah Simmons as Tony’s older sister Marie, who fears Rosabella because the young lady is a threat to remove Tony from Marie’s emotional control. But everyone else in the ensemble deserves mention—Joe Giovannetti, Roy Brown, Eric Dohner, David Gordon Johnson, Ryan Armstrong, Hope Elizabeth Schafer, Theresa Egan, Jonathan Wilson, and Laura Sportiello.
This is not a dancing production but James Beaudry has created some fine choreography that fits comfortably in the small playing area and matches the ensemble’s skill set. The big production number is the exuberant “Big D,” one of the score’s two hit songs along with “Standing on the Corner.” Adam Veness designed a set that evokes the California wine country with only a few props and a couple of rear projections. Bill Morey designed the excellent period costumes and James Kolditz designed the atmospheric lighting.
Photo by Adam Veness
The original production used a full pit orchestra. Theo Ubique reduces the accompaniment to a piano (played by musical director Jeremy Ramey) and a violin (Chuck Evans), viola (Hillary Butler), and cello (Desiree Miller). They lay down a continual musical underpinning of music that is both unobtrusive and effective.
The backstage hero of the show is director Fred Anzevino who magically accommodates the action to fit the limited stage and aisle performing space with a natural flow that makes every scene come across as natural and inevitable. And Anzevino’s casting is perfection. He also shortened the playing time by eliminating one of the show’s two intermissions to bring in the production at a reasonable 2 hours and 30 minutes.
It’s unlikely that many audience members will have seen “The Most Happy Fella” before attending this revival, so they will enjoy both a wonderfully staged musical and a fresh viewing experience. This is a production that would honor large Chicagoland theater houses like the Light Opera Works, the Marriott Theatre, Paramount Theatre, and Drury Lane. Indeed the Theo Ubique version may have an advantage with its intimacy. And some day lucky attendees will reminisce with satisfaction that they saw the great Molly Hernandez when she was a teenager.
“The Most Happy Fella” runs through May 7 at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 North Glenwood Avenue. Performances are Thursday through
Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $34 and $39. For more information, call 800 595 4849 or visit www.theoubique.org.
The show gets a rating of 4 stars March 2017
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