Most Happy Fella
Most Happy Fella
By Frank Loesser
Directed by Ed Weaver
Starring John Mansell, Sara Barnes, Piper Rae Patterson, Dave Sucharski
UCF Conservatory Theater, Orlando FL
This seldom-done production seems to break many of the unwritten rules of musical theater – not everyone pairs up, disgust transforms to deep love without much motivation, and the big blowout numbers do little to push the plot forward. These problems were written in by Frank Loesser, but UCF’s massive crew makes them fade into the curtains with their sheer energy and skill. Tony (Mansell) finds the years slipping by, but a chance meeting with sweet voiced waitress Rosabella (Barnes) leads to a romance-by-US mail courtship. Tony’s nervous about his age and never goes to musical theater, so he foolishly sends a picture of his much younger assistant Joey (Sucharski) instead. When Rosabella arrives in rural Napa Valley, she discovers the deceit as Tony wrecks his truck and needs 12 weeks of close attention by any available young woman. I must have glanced away, but Rosabella immediately forgives Tony and latches on to him, even though Joey is cuter and much more interesting. Rosabella’s close friend Cleo (Patterson) drops in, mostly to meet uber-nice Herman (Taylor Jeffers) and sing the splashy but essentially irrelevant “Big D – Dallas” that keeps our toes tapping through intermission.
The story is weak and hackneyed, but director Weaver’s brilliant choreography of the 30-plus cast made spectacle plaster over the cracks in the story. The highlight of the many dance numbers was “Standing on the Corner” done as the Cotton Eyed Joe. The “Big D” rated a close second, as Cleo and Herman had a real stage chemistry. Still, Mansell’s Tony projected a persistent charm, and I’m completely stricken with Ms. Barnes’ voice and while the romance was iffy, they were the most enjoyable couple overall. Best supporting characters were the three chefs Pasqual, Ciccio, and Giuseppe (Benjamin Smith, Jason Clement, and Yaniv Zarif.) They sang, they danced, and they juggled cheese. It was more fun than any chain Italian restaurant.
Maybe Loesser was trying to break the Musical Comedy mold, but Tony’s older sister Maria (Megan Wiley) was a truly tragic – her every emotion was tied to her brother, and she’s set adrift for no good reason by his pursuit of Rosabella. Joey drifted off as well; he announced his intentions early on and stuck to them, although his biggest internal conflict was whether to stick around for dinner. “Most Happy Fella” gets Broadway revivals periodically and with mixed results. It’s an acceptable story, but not in the top 10 list for musicals. UCF shows they can make a mountain out of this molehill, and I congratulate them for that.
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