Leah Hocking, Paul Sorvino, and Lisa Vroman  in The Most Happy Fella
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Leah Hocking, Paul Sorvino, and Lisa Vroman
in The Most Happy Fella
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Who's going to be happy about the New York City Opera's new production of Frank Loesser's 1956 musical The Most Happy Fella? Certainly, lovers of Loesser's score will be thrilled to hear it played by a full orchestra, rather than the two pianos that were used in the 1992 Broadway revival. And it's great to see and hear the group numbers sung and danced by a robust, 40-member ensemble, outfitted in Ann Hould Ward's period costumes and cavorting merrily on Michael Anania's atmospheric sets.

Without question, fans of the work will also be pleased to hear the two "arias" for Marie, Tony's overprotective sister, that have been restored at the urging of Jo Sullivan Loesser, the composer's widow (and the show's original co-star). Best of all, admirers of this production's two leading ladies, Lisa Vroman (as the so-called Rosabella) and Leah Hocking (as Cleo), will be delighted by their first-rate performances. Vroman sings the part of the young waitress turned mail-order bride beautifully and acts it affectingly when she isn't being upstaged by her appalling blonde wig. Hocking's tough-but-tender Cleo all but steals the show and further confirms that this performer is one of the musical theater's brightest new stars.

But the question lingers: Are operagoers really interested in the huge number of pure Broadway moments in The Most Happy Fella? On one hand, it's hard to imagine anyone not smiling when Hocking and the appealing John Scherer (as Herman) cavort in the rousing "Big D," which showcases some of Peggy Hickey's more interesting choreography. (Much of the rest of her work looks something you'd see in a road production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.) But if arias are your thing, this sequence may seem interminable. Too many of the ensemble numbers seem to drag down the plot -- although, come to think of it, this might not bother operagoers who are used to spending four, five, or six hours in their seats while nothing much happens on stage.

What of diehard musical theater fans, whose tastes may well have evolved over the past 50 years? Though they will enjoy Loesser's often glorious score, they'll likely scoff at his clunky libretto, adapted from Sidney Howard's play They Knew What They Wanted. For example: At the end of Act I, Loesser seems to set up an interesting love triangle between Rosabella (who's really named Amy); the older, immigrant vintner Tony (Paul Sorvino), who has tricked her into marrying him; and Tony's handsome ranch foreman, Joe (the studly Ivan Hernandez, who possesses a fine singing voice and manages to hit all his notes while wearing the tightest jeans imaginable). But as soon as Act II starts (City Opera is presenting the three-act show in two acts), Rosabella rapidly begins to fall deeply in love with her husband -- even though she slept with Joe on her wedding night! The final conflict between the now-happy couple, which is one-step away from an All My Children plot point, is resolved with equal speed.

Granted, a more skilled director than Philip Wm. McKinley, who here displays the same lack of expertise that was evident in his staging of The Boy From Oz, might have made more of the show's interpersonal relationships. He may also be responsible for the fact that the usually fine Karen Murphy plays Marie like she's auditioning for Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. And, given the lackluster treatment that "Standing on the Corner" receives here, it's hard to understand why it became a big hit -- although Scherer, Matt Bailey, Paul Castree, and Ryan Silverman do provide some lovely harmonies.

Of course, much of the above is irrelevant if you attend The Most Happy Fella primarily to see and hear Paul Sorvino as Tony. The character's songs, most notably "My Heart Is So Full of You," are among the crowning achievements of Loesser's career, so it would be wonderful to report that Sorvino does them justice; but whether it's because he's a tenor singing a baritone role or just due to his vocal mannerisms, these beautiful numbers simply don't come off properly. And though Sorvino deserves credit for perfecting an authentic Italian accent, it's occasionally so thick that you'll be glad for City Opera's supertitles. Still, Sorvino's acting is beyond reproach, and he's heartbreaking in the scene where he learns of Rosabella's betrayal.

If you enjoy musicals and have never before seen The Most Happy Fella, you might be -- to paraphrase one of the song titles -- happy to make its acquaintance at City Opera. Otherwise, this production's many shortcomings make for a less than fully satisfying experience.