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Goodspeed's 'Most Happy Fella' a lively, vibrant staging of classic musical

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"The Most Happy Fella" at Goodspeed Musicals

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There's such an "abbondanza" of riches currently onstage at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam in their exuberant and ultimately touching production of Frank Loesser's musical "The Most Happy Fella" that one can't help but leave the theater as a definitely happy guy or gal.

Loesser's legendary musical, which plays through December 1, is not necessarily an easy show to stage. As envisioned by the successful composer ("Guys and Dolls" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"), "The Most Happy Fella" is a hybrid of traditional Broadway musical comedy with some of the characteristics of opera. Not only do several of the roles require opera-quality or opera-trained voices, but the score itself consists of complex soaring melodies that convey an intensity of emotion rarely felt on a Broadway stage. Loesser has also written operatic style comedic trios (sung by a trio of Italian cooks) and dramatic quartets, exemplified by the stunning "How Beautiful the Days" that reflects the strong unexpressed feelings of four of the main characters.

Based on a 1930's Sidney Howard play, "They Knew What They Wanted," the story is full of event and complication as it moves from a diner in San Francisco to a large ranch in the heart of the wine-making Napa Valley, following a mail correspondence between a young waitress and an older Italian ranch owner who, in a fit of low self-esteem, passes off a photograph of his hunky foreman as his own. When the waitress, who the rancher Tony has renamed Rosabella after a lost love from his youth, arrives after agreeing to marry Tony, she is initially shocked and angered, especially after mistaking the foreman Joe for her intended. This is indeed a situation worthy of high opera and Loesser's rich, elaborate score does its best to capture the scope and range of these heart-felt emotions.

Is it a coincidence that director Rob Ruggiero is a natural, logical choice to helm this undertaking? After all, he has previously demonstrated the ease with which he can muster a complex, wide-ranging musical as in Goodspeed's successful "Showboat." And at his home stage at Hartford Theaterworks, he has quite readily admitted his affinity for staging a work about the therapeutic value of Italian cooking with last year's "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti," Jacques Lamarre's adaptation of Guilia Melucci's book of the same name. Ruggiero fills his production with plenty of genuine Italian zest and bravado and has even hired a dialect coach to maintain an accurate feel.

He has also elected to set the musical in the 1950's rather than in the 1930's, which has had the effect of making the show more relatable to a contemporary audience as well as emphasizing the costs of the social taboos being broken during that decade of social propriety. Ruggeiro has also managed to pare down the musical from its original three-act, nearly three-hour length to a more manageable two acts at two hours and twenty minutes without compromising too much of Loesser's magnificant music. I'll admit that one of my favorite songs was omitted ("I Made A Fist") but as a result Ruggiero now allows a feuding couple to resolve their philosophical differences through an act of kindness rather than violence.

Unlike "The Most Happy Fella's" last visit to the Goodspeed stage in 1991 when it was performed with a specially-written, well-received two piano score, this version employs a seven-person chamber ensemble that in Dan DeLange's remarkable orchestrations captures the exquisite scope and essence of the original Broadway production's much larger orchestra. Here you come away with an appreciation for Loesser's majestic vision.oo

From the moment he walks out onto the stage, Bill Nolte fully inhabits the character of Tony Esposito. The way he carries himself, the expressiveness of his face and eyes, Nolte conveys everything you need to know about Tony: his ebullience, his commanding and towering presence, his unspoken infirmities and his insecurities. And when he opens his mouth to sing, his deep baritone is just icing on the cake. It is impressive how he expresses Tony's masculine stubborness, while accommodating the rancher's more sensitive moments: this is a well-integrated performance that reveals the complexity of a strong yet lonely man who has earned the genuine respect of his workers. In addition, Nolte handles his character's broken English with a respect and aplomb that continues appropriately into his songs. Tony's frequent run-ins with the English language are even highlighted in the number, "Happy to Make Your Acquaintance," in which his "mail order" bride tries to teach him the American way of greeting a visitor.

Just as Nolte captures all of the nuances of Tony, Mamie Parris also creates a multi-faceted Rosabella, whose dissatisfaction with her life as a waitress leads her to correspond with the anonymous author of a mash note left on a diner's tab. She quite believably conveys her character's anger and rage upon discovering the duplicity as well as her resulting, understandable spur of the moment attraction to Joe, which has consequences all of its own. And Parris' voice is just the perfect vehicle to carry such richly romantic songs as "Somebody, Somewhere," or duet on "Warm All Over" and "My Heart is So Full of You."

But each member of the cast seems to possess an impressive singing voice, as well as a propensity to create a distinct personality for each of their characters. Especially enjoyable was the delightful Natalie Hill as Rosabella's waitress friend Cleo whose visit to the ranch is a gift from Tony to his lonely bride. Hill nicely expresses her character's vivaciousness which magically restores Rosabella's confidence and offers a new perspective to her friend's situation. Hill also matches well with the tall and lanky Kevin Vortmann who imbues the ranch hand Herman with a trusting, carefree innocence that sets him up as the frequent victim of his fellow hands' jokes, much to Cleo's chagrin. Hill and Vortmann sing and dance together quite nicely and it's nice to see them incorporated into several of choreographer Parker Esse's production numbers. The two also get to deliver what is arguably the show's most famous number, "Big D," a rousing salute to their shared home town of Dallas, that is well-staged by Ruggiero and Esse.

With yet another deep and resonant singing voice is Doug Carpenter who offers a Joe who is also multi-layered, revealing a connection with the "fish out of water" Rosabella yet heartsick at whatever complications he has caused for her and Tony, a man Carpenter's Joe clearly admires and respects. His version of "Joey, Joey, Joey" not only showcases his singing but also his character's angst, which is again sampled in the show's major quartet, "How Beautiful the Days," which he performs with Nolte, Parris and Ann Arvia.

Arvia handles the operatic demands of the essentially one-note role of Maria, Tony's sister, who is threatened by arrival of Rosabella and fearful that she may lose her brother. Michael Deleget plays the local doctor, an example of Ruggiero's ability to encourage ensemble members to create distinct characters. Deleget's doctor comes across as compassionate, concerned and ultimately insightful, particularly when he leads the townsfolk in the lovely, ethereal "Song of a Summer Night."

Martin Sola, Greg Roderick and Daniel Berryman provide delicious harmonies as they prepare for various banquets and parties, proudly filling tables and baskets with a continuing array of Italian goodies. Noah Aberlin, Danny Lindgren and Eric Ulloa play three ranch hands who, in addition to occasionally harassing Vortmann's Herman, provide welcome backup on such songs as "Standin' on the Corner (Watchin' All The Girls Go By").

Michael Schweikardt has designed a set that can hold a fairly detailed recreation of a 50's diner, complete with counter, stools, and tables and chair then split apart to reveal the rolling Napa Valley, featuring a 1950's street scene complete with the long-remembered signs of the period and later the vast expanse of the ranch, surrounded by dangling grape arbors and a barn. The costumes by Thomas Charles LeGalley reflect the bright sunny environment of California, whether they be the ranch hand's work clothes, the skirts of the working Napa women and the "dress up" outfits as the townsfolk head off to weekend festivities. Mark Adam Rampmeyer's wig and hair designs help anchor the entire evening in the time period while John Lasiter's lighting adds the appropriate ambience and clarity.

I was quite pleasantly surprised at how swiftly the evening moves along, with nary a moment for the cast and the audience to catch our breaths, except for the single intermission. There are so many delightful elements to the show, starting of course with the elegance and variety of Loesser's score and the memorable performances of the production's leads. "The Most Happy Fella" demonstrates the Goodspeed's remarkable ability to bring together a diverse mix of what are top quality components in its admittedly challenging environment and create something thrilling and rewarding beyond expectation.

For tickets, call the Box Office at 860.873.8668 or visit the Goodspeed website at www.goodspeed.org.

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