What's so unusual about a production of Happy Fella with first-rate singing actors in the leads plus full instrumental and choral forces? Well, first of all, keep in mind that the 1992 Broadway revival of the show offered none of the above. So it's all the more amazing that VLOG, a non-union company that's closer to community theater than just about any other Manhattan-based troupe, really came up with the goods. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, Happy Fella is Frank Loesser's gorgeously operatic musical about a middle-aged Italian vintner named Tony Esposito who lives and works in the Napa Valley in 1927. The lovesick Tony woos a young San Francisco waitress through the mails, the only problem being that he gets her to Napa by sending her a photo not of himself but of his ranch foreman -- a young, handsome rake named Joe.
Fans of VLOG's first Happy Fella will be thrilled to hear that the troupe is having a second go at the show. The new production opens tonight in the Haft Auditorium at the Fashion Institute of Technology with an entirely new set of performers in the leads but with Ron Noll again leading a full orchestra and chorus. This time around, Tony Esposito is being played by Michael Roth, who moved to New York from Indianapolis about four years ago. "I came here because I was accepted into the BMI musical theater writing workshop," says Roth. "Performing wasn't on my mind but, just a few months ago, I thought: 'I'm here in New York, so I might as well!' I did some professional things and then I saw the audition notice for this show. I felt it would be a growth experience because I hadn't played a lead in a while."
Roth has found the role to be challenging in several respects. "It's not really my voice type," he says. "I'm a lyric baritone and he's more of a basso profundo. I've never really sung opera, just some art songs and classical pieces in college, so we're getting the musical theater singer's version of Tony here. The accent has also required a lot of work; one of our set builders has been acting as my dialect coach and he's been very helpful. The other thing is that this character is really very different from me in terms of personality; I'm kind of shy but he's really out there. So It's been a challenge for me to become this big, open-hearted person."
Playing opposite Roth as the woman he calls "Rosabella" is Marissa McGowan, who very recently had the title role in the York Theatre Company's "Musicals in Mufti" presentation of Fanny. The way she sees it, the two characters are quite different despite some outward similarities in their stories. "Fanny is an innocent, 18-year-old girl but Rosabella is not so innocent," McGowan explains. "She's been around and she has her baggage. In Fanny, there are two love stories: Fanny loves both Marius and Panisse but in completely different ways. In The Most Happy Fella, there's not really a love story with Joe. I'd say it's a lust story. The musical is really about this woman realizing that he loves Tony and learning to love herself."
McGowan has a history with the show -- sort of. "We did senior shows at our high school on Long Island and they were going to do Happy Fella for me," she relates. "It fell through at the last minute but I had read the script and I was familiar with the score. I just fell in love with it, so I was very sad that I didn't get to do it. When I went to college -- Syracuse University -- I sang 'Somebody, Somewhere' in a musical theater class one time and my teacher said, 'You'll never play that part.' Growing up, I was definitely more of a belter -- a little Annie. But I took voice lessons with an opera singer in college and that's how I developed a legit sound. It's funny: I just e-mailed an old friend from summer stock and told him, 'I'm doing Fanny and The Most Happy Fella.' He was, like, 'Whatever happened to that sassy, sexy little belter?' But I love doing these wonderful, meaty soprano roles."
Well cast in the role of Joe is Ryan Cloud, who was in VLOG's The Pirates of Penzance last fall. He's very glad to come back to the group, although he admits that "I had actually never heard of this show when it was first proposed to me. I don't have a very deep history in musical theater; it wasn't my family's background in any way and I'm really just starting to audition. This is my first principal role in 10 years -- and the last one was in high school." His day job? "I'm a massage therapist. I've been doing that for six years."
Because of Joe's actions and attitude, he can sometimes come across as the villian of the piece, but Cloud doesn't see him that way at all. "My idea of the character has really changed over the course of rehearsals," he says. "At one point, I did envision him being a little colder, but I don't feel that I've had a hard time making him sympathetic. Joe is an uncomplicated character. I don't want to say that he's simple, because that's not the case, but he's certainly not complicated."
Much of the comic relief in Happy Fella is written into the role of Cleo, Rosabella's friend and former fellow waitress. Playing this plum part for VLOG is Catherine Hesse, who -- in a case of less-than-great timing -- started a new job as the manager of a spa during the rehearsal period. Earlier this week, she arrived late and frazzled for a run-through of the score with the orchestra. "Most everybody in this show has some sort of nine-to-five job," Hesse told me after she had calmed down. "I took some day shifts so I could have my nights free for tech week and the opening, and it was just impossible for me to leave work when I wanted to this afternoon. So I was late and that made me hysterical.
"You've gotta pay the bills in order to do what you love," she says matter-of-factly. "It's hard to balance the two but it's so worth it. For me, the last week of rehearsal is the best part of the process. It's like a puzzle: You work on this part, you work on that part, and then all the pieces come together. It's a really cool feeling."
Hesse's romantic and comic partner in the show is Bj Hemann in the role of Herman. "It's such a fun part," the energetic young performer exclaims. "That was what drew me to the show. My sister worked on past productions with VLOG. When she told me that they were doing The Most Happy Fella and approached me about auditioning, I thought, 'What part could I play?' I'd only seen the show once, in a production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Then, all of the sudden, it hit me: Herman! I don't know why I didn't think of it in the first place. Actually, the part hits a little too close to home because he's basically just a great, big dork."
Hemann has found VLOG to be the perfect venue for easing himself back into the theater after a hiatus. "When I first moved to New York," he says, "I did shows for about a year straight, but then I took a break to do rock and roll music. I didn't touch theater for about two years. I wanted to do a show here because it reminds you of why you fell in love with theater in the first place; it's that hands-on kind of thing where you're involved in every aspect of the show. If you don't love it, there's no reason to be here, because that's what VLOG is all about."