“Abbondanza” (Italian for abundance, affluence and plenty) is the keyword describing every ingredient that adds to the critical and popular success of Goodspeed Musicals’ final offering in its 50th Anniversary Season – “The Most Happy Fella.”
An abundance of stagecraft and musical, singing, acting, choreographic and directorial talent give this show the warm-all-over-sparkle of its setting in California’s sunny Napa Valley.
When Frank Loesser re-worked his original 1924 gem of a simple love-story in 1956, it was praised for its abbondanza of songs that ranged in style from “traditional Broadway tunes to amorous duets, operatic arias, canons, trios, choral episodes, quartets, parodies and orchestral interludes,” wrote Goodspeed’s Education and Library Director, Joshua Ritter.
Indeed, the current Goodspeed Musical production showcases all of those styles with exuberance and heart. Director Rob Ruggiero and choreographer Parker Esse have collaborated to make this re-telling of Loesser’s story a memorable blend of big song-and-dance numbers (“Big D” and “Sposalizio”) to quiet moments of love (“Warm All Over”) to the big dramatic operatic moments as Tony and Rosabella sing “My Heart Is So Full Of You.”
The show begins in a San Francisco diner with Natalie Hill as Cleo showering us with her comic talents and great voice in the funny “Oooh My Feet” number. Just when we think it’s going to be an evening of laughs, Mamie Parris as Rosabella offers us our first taste of her gorgeous singing in the ‘longing for love’ quest for “Somebody, Somewhere.”
By the time we meet Tony Esposito, the not-so-young, ‘not-a-so-gooda-lookin’ Napa Valley winemaker, perfectly played and sung with booming enthusiasm by Bill Nolte, we are hooked into the realization that what we are beginning to experience is a great evening of plausible heart-felt entertainment – an other magnificent production, as we have come to expect from one of the theater’s most gifted director’s, Rob Ruggiero, in association with the talented Goodspeed production team.
From one moment to the next, the surprises and delights keep coming. The recognizable and tuneful “Standing On The Corner” is harmoniously sung by Kevin Vortmann, Noah Aberlin, Danny Lindgren and Eric Ulloa as Herman, Clem, Jake and Al – all of whom are not only wonderful singers, but exquisitely athletic dancers as well. When Doug Carpenter as Tony’s foreman, Joe, begins to sing the anthem to his restlessness “Joey, Joey, Joey” we are left breathless by the beauty of his vocal power and delivery.
It would be unfair to future audiences to for us to tell the story details of “The Most Happy Fella.” This is a show that needs to be seen, heard and experienced. This is a show that offers us a magical look into the world of Italian comic opera when the three house-chefs on Tony’s ranch sing “Abbondanza” and “Benvenuta.” Martin Sola, Greg Roderick and Daniel Berryman allow us to enjoy the strength of their vocal prowess in these numbers. They offer a treat not only to opera lovers but to those who have never before been exposed to this classic type of singing.
Whenever the libretto leads the audience into an emotional excuse for tears, the comedic talents of Natalie Hill’s Cleo and Kevin Vortmann’s Herman bring us back to laughter. “I Like Ev’rybody” and “Big D” are joyous and exuberant numbers – sung and danced to perfection by these two talented Broadway Babies.
The portrayal of Tony’s unlikeable sister, Marie, was so beautifully sung by Ann Arvia, that we understood the torture and unhappiness that Marie experienced each time she believed that she was being shut out of Tony’s life. Michael Deleget as Doc soulfully led the cast into choral perfection in “Song of A Summer Night.” Rounding out the cast of principals, James Zannelli and John Payonk each gave multiple character portraits with style and vocal panache.
If one number alone illustrates the overwhelming talents of the ensemble and everyone associated with this show, it is “Sposalizio.” Here we see the expertise of costume design by Thomas Charles LeGalley, the beautiful Napa Valley scenery by Michael Schweikardt, the flawless lighting and sound by John Lasiter and Jay Hilton, and the period hairstyles by Mark Adam Rampmeyer.
“Sposalizio” is also the quintessential and always breathtaking Goodspeed ‘ big dance number’ with a dazzling cast on the tiny stage all at the same time, this season choreographed in a joyous celebratory Tarantella by the brilliant, award-winning Parker Esse.
Music director Michael O’Flaherty, assisted by William J. Thomas, using orchestrations by Dan DeLange, proves once again that the blending of thrilling voices and brilliant musicians are the hallmark of the Goodspeed experience. It’s a special treat that season after season, this gifted musical trio, along with just seven versatile musicians, create the sound of a full symphony orchestra. Similarly, the vocal arrangements are always pitch perfect.
And, just when we thought he could not top himself as a director, Rob Ruggiero once again shows us that we’ve run out of adjectives to describe his talent. Each year we exclaim – “This is the best show that Rob has ever done!” Each year we are proved wrong as he makes us laugh out loud or sniffle softly without his ever resorting to the ‘tricks’ of shtick or descent into contrived and forced sentimentality. He is a superb story-teller. Hidden away from the limelight, Mr. Ruggiero is the invisible puppet-master extraordinaire of musicals, as well as comedy and drama.
After the show, we spoke briefly with Leo Meyer, the radio personality who has contributed to the theater for decades with his own scenic design company. He told us that in 1956, prior to the original opening of “The Most Happy Fella” on Broadway, he spoke with Frank Loesser, the show’s creator (music, lyrics and book) who said that he considered this show to be the one ‘opera’ of his career. Loesser's greater musicals, "Guys and Dolls" and "How to Succeed.." celebrated the comedy aspect of musical comedy, without the emotional power of "The Most Happy Fella."
Indeed, the brilliant choral blending of exquisite voices, the soaring duets, the quiet love songs and the comic relief all add up to a kind of Broadway-style opera. And, as with more grand operas, they cannot really be described in mere words. They must be personally savored, experienced, seen, heard and taken into the heart. Only with your own participation can a show like “The Most Happy Fella” make you feel warm all over.
Plays through December 1. Go to www.goodspeed.org for details or call the box office at 860-873-8668. Goodspeed Musicals, 6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT.