|The cast of City Center Encores' The Most Happy Fella|
Arguably lyricist-composer Frank Loesser created the finest version of Sidney Howard's Pulitzer prize-winning "They Knew What They Wanted" with his musical theater masterpiece The Most Happy Fella. City Center Encores presented a semi-staged production with lots of singing and dancing in April 2014, and it served to remind the very appreciative audience of just how memorable this musical/opera is. Awash in sensitive melody from start to finish, it tells the story of vintner Tony Esposito (Shuler Hensley), an uneducated middle-aged man who falls for a young and pretty waitress he calls Rosabella (Laura Benanti). Foolishly he sends her the picture of his young friend and worker, Joe (Cheyenne Jackson), instead of his own, setting up a situation that can only culminate in, as his sister Marie (Jessica Molaskey) would put it, trouble. Rosabella agrees to marry Tony, but gets a bitter surprise when she shows up in Napa Valley ... Besides this triangle, there's a secondary, comical romance between Rosabella's friend Cleo (Heidi Blickenstaff) and another of Tony's workers (Jay Armstrong Johnson). Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, this production boasts a remarkably talented cast. Benanti has a wonderful voice that wraps itself around such numbers as "Warm All Over" and "Somebody Somewhere." While he may not be a Robert Weede vocally (Weede sang the role in the original production), Hensley still has a good voice and his acting is excellent. Jackson demonstrates his beautiful singing with Joe's big number "Joey, Joey, Joey," and Blickenstaff, Molaskey, and Johnson also give superior performances. I was also especially impressed with Zachary James and Kevin Vortmann, but I must say the entire company performed with verve and enthusiasm. But if The Most Happy Fella doesn't bring out the best in everyone, what will? One final note: We don't learn that "Rosabella's" real name is Amy until the very end of the show, but of course Tony had to know her real name because of their exchange of letters. This production makes a few cuts, and Marie's number (Eyes of a Stranger, but don't quote me) rarely is included these days.
Verdict: A masterpiece. ****.