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The Most Happy Fella

There are few more sparkling examples of American musical comedy than Frank Loesser's "Guys and Dolls," which couldn't be more firmly rooted in the Broadway tradition. But his lush 1956 show about love and forgiveness, "The Most Happy Fella," juggles classic showtunes with delicate arias, dense harmonies and complex choral work, making it equally, if not more, at home on an opera stage.

There are few more sparkling examples of American musical comedy than Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls,” which couldn’t be more firmly rooted in the Broadway tradition. But his lush 1956 show about love and forgiveness, “The Most Happy Fella,” juggles classic showtunes with delicate arias, dense harmonies and complex choral work, making it equally, if not more, at home on an opera stage. While there’s pleasure to be had from hearing the uncommonly rich score performed by a full orchestra, the New York City Opera staging is a stale bonbon that fails to make the story resonate emotionally. And an ill-at-ease Paul Sorvino comes across like a trattoria warbler in a demanding title role that calls for a big-voiced baritone.

A fine actor who can play gruff mafiosi as convincingly as tender-hearted bears, Sorvino is in many ways a fitting choice for Tony, the Sicilian made good as a Napa Valley vineyard owner. But his voice simply is not robust enough to fill the cavernous State Theater, and he invariably struggles to cover his lack of sustained power and control with a big-belter finish.

When he sings of Tony’s romantic yearning, fear of rejection and rueful acknowledgment of his age, his faded looks and clumsy command of English, the words remain trapped in Sorvino’s throat (a problem aggravated by the thick Italian accent he adopts), suffocating the character’s vulnerability and humanity with them.

On opening night, the actor summoned more confidence in the second act, conveying the right balance of fragility and hubris. But he too rarely glows with the generosity of spirit that gives Tony claim to the show’s title.

Based on Sidney Howard’s 1925 Pulitzer-winning play “They Knew What They Wanted,” the story paints Tony as a soulful romantic, falling for San Francisco waitress Amy (Lisa Vroman) after seeing her only once at the diner where she works.

Aware he’s no prize, Tony writes to ask her to marry him, but encloses a photo of his hunky foreman, Joe (Ivan Hernandez). Sweating over the revelation of his true identity, Tony goes to the station to pick up Amy, whom he calls Rosabella, and his car overturns.

Shocked and confused by Tony’s deception and by the accident, Amy falls into Joe’s arms, learning only after she marries Tony that she’s pregnant by Joe.

Vroman has a lovely soprano that nails every crystalline note, but her acting is flat and unengaging. Rosabella’s gradual discovery, as she nurses Tony back to health, of his goodness, kindness and capacity for affection should stir something in the audience. It should make us as willing as her husband to overlook Rosabella’s dalliance with Joe, just as she’s willing to overlook the fact that Tony is not the strapping young man of her dreams.

Director Philip Wm. McKinley (“The Boy From Oz”) gives the actors too little to do, planting them like statues through songs that cry out for a little expressive movement.

His lifeless staging is not helped by the cheesy backdrops and stock appearance of Michael Anania’s sets, which add to a general whiff of community theater. Ann Hould Ward’s colorful costumes add some vitality, but the wig department mystifyingly has given all the women the same bad perm.

Choreographer Peggy Hickey opts for generic boisterousness in ensemble production numbers like “Big D.” Despite the accent on the show’s operatic flavor, it’s the Broadway-style numbers — like that rowdy cheerleader’s ode to Dallas or “Standing on the Corner” — that are performed with the most charm and conviction.

And it’s the cast member with her feet planted firmly in musical comedy terrain that emerges as the most winning presence onstage: Leah Hocking as Amy’s brassy, flirtatious gal pal Cleo.

The chief reward here for obsessive tunerphiles will be hearing Loesser’s score in its complete version. The production restores two songs cut from the original, “Nobody’s Ever Gonna Love You Like I Love You” and “Eyes Like a Stranger,” both sung with brooding intensity by Karen Murphy as Tony’s almost incestuously over-protective sister.

The Most Happy Fella

State Theater; 2,763 seats; $120 top

  • Production: A New York City Opera presentation of a musical in two acts with book, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, based on Sidney Howard's play "They Knew What They Wanted." Directed by Philip Wm. McKinley. Choreography, Peggy Hickey.
  • Crew: Sets, Michael Anania; costumes, Ann Hould Ward; lighting, Robert Wierzel; sound, Abe Jacob; orchestrations, Don Walker; conductor, George Manahan. Opened, reviewed March 7, 2006. Running time: 2 HOURS, 50 MIN.
  • Cast: Tony - Paul Sorvino Rosabella/Amy - Lisa Vroman Joe - Ivan Hernandez Marie - Karen Murphy Cleo - Leah Hocking Herman - John Scherer Doctor - Eddie Korbich <b>With:</b> Matt Bailey, Paul Castree, Ryan Silverman, Andrew Drost, Matthew Surapine, Bruce Winant, William Ryall, Kelly Crandall, Boyd Schlaefer, Gregory Hostetler.
  • Music By: