Bill Marshall and Sarah Lawrence in the Skylark Opera Theatre production of The Most Happy Fella, now playing at the Mounds Theatre in St. Paul, MN. Photo courtesy of Skylark Opera Theatre.
What would you get if Frank Loesser of Guys and Dolls fame decided to write an opera? You’d get The Most Happy Fella, Loesser’s operetta poking fun at opera tropes with a side order of sordid backstory. (Loesser and his first wife divorced shortly after the show opened on Broadway, after which he married the show’s female lead.) The show has some beautiful and clever writing, including a few pieces that, like Guys and Dolls‘s “Fugue for Tinhorns”, are really thrown into the score just to amuse and show off.
Skylark Opera Theatre’s production of this less commonly performed piece opened Friday at the Mounds Theatre in St. Paul. The production has something of a summer stock feel to it, recycling some elements and cast members from the company’s recent Così fan tutte in the same space. Two onstage pianos provide the accompaniment.
Musically, much is lost with this two-piano rendition. Although Loesser approved this arrangement for a 1991 production at Goodspeed Opera House, you’d be hard-pressed in the Mounds Theatre to hear anything that requires more than one person at the keyboard. The placement of both pianos upstage, players facing the audience, contributes to a general clunkiness and lack of nuance in the sound – there interplay between the pianos simply is not audible in the received sound. Rotating them 90 degrees in opposite directions and opening the lids would have given a much stronger stereo image, allowing the colors of the respective instruments to shine through. Why is this important? Because much of the songs lacked a certain pizzaz and thrust normally provided by the pit – most notably in Act I, while the slow establishing plot is being laid out. It’s not that this couldn’t provided by two pianos, but it wasn’t.
The plot of The Most Happy Fella is essentially a mail-order bride story, with the older Italian immigrant Tony (an excellent Bill Marshall) enticing the waitress Rosabella (Sarah Lawrence) via letter to come to his Napa Valley ranch and marry him. Naturally, it’s not all smooth sailing and California sunsets – one of which, in an apparently accidental bit of lighting, ends up looking more hellish than heavenly. Plot-wise, Tony has used a photo of his good-looking ranch manager Joe (Justin Spenner) in his correspondence, giving the story has a surprising amount of resonance with the trials and tribulations of online dating today.
Skylark’s production is at its best in two places: the small, intimate moments between Tony and Rosabella in Act II, and the over-the-top, exuberant scenes between Laurel Armstrong and Phinehas Bynum, who play Texans-out-of-water Cleo and Herman. Their duet “Big D” is funny, thrilling, and devilishly executed. Plus, given the normal tropes, it’s practically novel these days to see Texas being celebrated on stage in a non-ironic way.
A place where the production seems less steady on its feet is playing Rosabella’s fish-out-of-water discomfort when she first arrives at Tony’s ranch. Bob Neu’s direction makes the scene comes across as if Rosabella fears that she’s about to be assaulted, much more so than anything indicated in the script. This particular play on vulnerability is, at the least, distracting. Further, the aloofness of the other characters involved threatens the suspension of disbelief.
These bumps not withstanding, there is a strong payoff in Act II, when Tony and Rosabella slowly fall in love for real. Their duet “My Heart Is So Full of You” is executed in a way guaranteed to send your heart a-flutter, and their musical flirtations before that are pretty fun, too.
Unlike his better-known shows, Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella probably isn’t going to send you out of the theatre humming a favorite tune. It is some pleasant listening in the moment, though – but do come early to mark your seats, because the open seating is not a feature if you’re not there at least 15 minutes in advance.
The Most Happy Fella plays at the Historic Mounds Theatre in St. Paul, MN through October 20.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017. He was previously the Regional Governor for the National Opera Association's North Central Region.
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