Elena Shaddow and James Snyder in Fanny
(© Joan Marcus)
Elena Shaddow and James Snyder in Fanny
(© Joan Marcus)
From the moment it begins, there's a palpable sense of gentleness and delicacy to director Marc Bruni's staging of Fanny, being presented at New York City Center Encores! Lighting designer Ken Billington subtly bathes the stage in pastels and the orchestra (led with precision and crispness by Rob Berman) grandly brings to life the overture, that displays not only the diversity of Harold Rome's lush score, but also whisks audiences to the French seaside as it echoes the sounds of waves lapping at the shore. Once this tone has been set, it's essentially impossible to not be entranced by this delectable and neglected musical theater gem.

Based on a trilogy of novels by Marcel Pagnol, S.N. Behrman and Joshua Logan's economical book spins a bittersweet love story about a young woman, Fanny (Elena Shaddow), who's passionately in love with her childhood friend Marius (James Snyder). He has a similar ardor for her, but is unable to show it because of his burning desire to go to sea. When Fanny learns that he will be setting sail for five years, she offers herself to him on the night before his departure.

Fanny soon discovers that she's pregnant, and in desperation, turns to the wealthy, but elderly, widower Panisse (Fred Applegate), who has been seeking her hand in marriage. He quickly guesses the reason for her sudden acquiescence to his advances, and an alliance is made -- with the blessing of Marius' father Cesar (George Hearn), who also knows of the parentage of the child that Fanny's carrying. In return for Cesar's silence about the child, Panisse agrees to make him the child's godfather and name it, if it's a boy, Cesario.

It's an exceptionally adult tale that's simultaneously bittersweet and profoundly moving. The characters' compromises pull at the heart. So does their genuine affection for one another, which is terrifically felt given the central performances. Applegate charms from the outset, filling Panisse with a joie de vivre that offsets any sense that theatergoers might have that the character is simply an elderly lecher. Hearn, in a grandly understated turn, makes Cesar a human incarnation of a French baguette: he may be all cross and crusty on the outside, but there's a genuine softness underneath. Both men deliver their songs with not only strength, but genuine warmth, and together they share a genial comic chemistry that radiates throughout the theater.

As the young lovers, Shaddow and Snyder deliver powerhouse vocal performances. She rips into some of Rome's most soaring numbers with a remarkably clear soprano; while Snyder's vocals -- particularly with the operatic "Restless Heart" -- resound with intensity. While they are less effective in some of the characters' less bombastic moments early on, they nonetheless deliver poised performances during several of the most critical moments in the second act when Fanny and Marius have begun to regret the choices that they made in the heat of youth.

Supporting the central performances are several deliciously conceived turns, particularly from Priscilla Lopez, who plays Fanny's spitfire mother with aplomb and who gets to remind audiences of her keen abilities as a dancer during Fanny's wedding (one of several extended dance sequences that have been well-conceived by choreographer Lorin Latarro). Equally enjoyable are turns from David Patrick Kelly, Michael McCormick, and Jack Doyle, all of whom bring humor and color to this exceptionally satisfying production.