Fans of lush, romantic, big-voiced musical comedy of the mid-20th century should plan a quick trip to the Encores! staging of “Fanny.” The triangular tale of thwarted romance on the Marseille waterfront has not received a major New York production since 1954; it features a cascade of powerful-if-nearly-forgotten songs that fill City Center with a warm and glorious glow. Audiences in search of such entertainment will be glad to bask in Harold Rome’s Mediterranean melodies; those looking for more contemporary sounds might be better off looking elsewhere.
Based on Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of plays-turned-into-films from the 1930s, the tuner has always been problematic. If Marseille is famous for its bouillabaisse, “Fanny” is a bubbling concoction with everything thrown in, including the kitchen sink. (Recalling Flo Ziegfeld’s 1920s extravaganzas, the first act features a belly dance, while the second — for no reason — incorporates a circus.)
Teenaged fishmonger Fanny (Elena Shaddow) loves barkeeper’s son Marius (James Snyder), who has a problematic relationship with his father, Cesar (George Hearn). Marius is so enthralled by the sea that he ships off after one night of amour. The instantly pregnant Fanny marries elderly widower Panisse (Fred Applegate), who — being childless — is glad to accept the tyke as his own.
Marius returns, but Fanny refuses to leave Panisse. After twelve years and that ridiculous circus, there’s a conveniently happy if bittersweet ending.
First-time producer David Merrick’s plan was to create a second “South Pacific”; that 1949 classic’s director, co-author and designer were on hand, as well as the original Emile de Becque (top-billed Ezio Pinza) and Lt. Cable. But songwriters Rodgers and Hammerstein opted out of what would have been perfect material for them, with Rodgers refusing to work with Merrick.
Rome — thus far known for snappily satirical songs of social significance — came up with a surprisingly romantic, if overly bounteous, score. Where “Fanny” faltered was in the absence of Hammerstein’s bookwriting and plot-crafting talents.
The songs make it all worthwhile, headed by the pop hit “Fanny,” as well as Marius’ pulsating “Restless Heart,” Fanny’s yearning “I Have to Tell You,” Cesar’s evocative “Welcome Home” and Panisse’s poignant “To My Wife.”
Applegate takes acting honors with his charming performance as the not-duped husband. (Walter Slezak and Maurice Chevalier, who played the role in stage and screen versions, also stole their respective shows.)
The relatively unknown Shaddow comes across fine, as does Snyder (more impressive here than as leading man in the short-lived “Cry-Baby”). Broadway vet Priscilla Lopez garners laughs as Fanny’s mother Honorine. Two-time Tony winner Hearn, though, seems uncomfortable in the role of Cesar, which is intended to be the show’s warm center.
In its 50th outing, Encores! entrusts “Fanny” to director Mark Bruni and choreographer Lorin Latarro, first-timers with comprehensive assistant credits. Both manage things adequately, until done in by the faulty book structure and that clumsy second act.
Music department is topnotch. Philip Lang’s orchestrations — heavy with harp, accordion and mandolin — are impressive. Music director Rob Berman, just back from shepherding “Finian’s Rainbow” to its recent Broadway visit, does a wonderful job, as does his orchestra. Chalk “Fanny” up as a winner, musically at least.