Jay Armstrong Johnson and Heidi Blickenstaff in the Encores! production of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, directed by Casey Nicholaw, at New York City Center.
Jay Armstrong Johnson and Heidi Blickenstaff in the Encores! production of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, directed by Casey Nicholaw, at New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

A big musical-theater production number fades seamlessly into a dissonant operatic quartet in Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, now receiving a revival by Encores! at City Center. This construct may seem weird for those accustomed to the rules of musical theater (or opera), but it feels perfectly natural in this idiosyncratic show that takes a little from both traditions. Opera fans and Broadway enthusiasts alike will find something to enjoy about this concert staging by director Casey Nicholaw and music director Rob Berman. The production draws out Loesser's lush and beautiful score while maintaining a rigorous approach to acting.

A 38-person cast brings the story to life on a narrow strip of stage between the audience and Berman's 38-piece orchestra. Even in this small runway, Nicholaw is able to choreograph massive dance numbers with high kicks and acrobatic handstands. Like a Technicolor musical version of Of Mice and Men, the world of agrarian California springs to vivid life on the City Center mainstage.

It's San Francisco, 1927: Cleo (Heidi Blickenstaff), a waitress, rests her feet following her shift at the diner. Another waitress has received an extraordinary tip: an amethyst tie pin attached to a love letter. The letter refers to the waitress as Rosabella (Laura Benanti). That's not her real name, but it's what the letter's author, Tony (Shuler Hensley), calls her. Tony is a homely Italian immigrant and owner of a vineyard in Napa Valley. He and Rosabella begin a correspondence, and she asks for a picture of this mysterious suitor. Fearing that Rosabella will reject him for his looks, Tony mails a photo of his handsome foreman Joe (Cheyenne Jackson).

After receiving the photo, Rosabella decides to meet Tony in Napa. She soon discovers his deception, but can't call him on it because a sudden truck accident leaves Tony on the brink of death. He asks Rosabella to marry him and, impulsively, she agrees. She may not find Tony attractive, but hey, at least she'll get the farm. And there's always the handsome foreman…

Second-act spoiler alert: Tony survives! Oops. But he's such a nice guy that Rosabella starts to actually fall in love. Cleo comes to town and find her own dream date in farmhand Herman (Jay Armstrong Johnson). Love is all around, but a sexual tryst with Joe on her wedding night threatens to derail Rosabella's newfound marital bliss.

As Rosabella, Benanti is stunning and authentic, baring her legit musical-theater chops for the world to see. She sensitively navigates some very difficult emotional waters. (Remember, Rosabella is essentially a mail-order bride who has a shotgun marriage to a dying man.) Benanti has a partner who can match her toe to toe in Hensley, who offers an extremely nuanced and sympathetic portrayal as the over-the-hill cuckold. In fact, he's so sweet that one wonders why Rosabella would want to sleep with Joe on her wedding night. Sure, he's hot, but as performed by Jackson, he constantly comes off as a sleaze, even during his song of comforting seduction, "Don't Cry." And Loesser never lets us forget Joe's true nature by inserting a lingering minor strain underneath the sweet melody.

Berman's deft direction ensures that every motif and every chord progression is crystal clear. Under his baton, one feels as if the woodwinds are enveloping the melody in a warm embrace. Yet the slightest shift causes that happy strain to turn sad, subtly hinting at the despair to come.

The composition styles range from Broadway hoedown (the rollicking dance number "Big D") to jazz standard ("Warm All Over") to operatic chorale ("Song of a Summer Night"). Donning three stereotypical Italian chef hats, Zachary James, Brian Calì, and Bradley Dean bust out their opera voices for "Abbondanza," a crowd-pleasing homage to bel canto. At points, Loesser's score is reminiscent of Mozart ("How Beautiful the Days"). It can also whip into a grandiose emotional frenzy à la Tchaikovsky (the dance interlude following "...Old People Gotta"). An abrupt and incredibly modern musical aside within the Western-style up-tempo song "Fresno Beauties" seems to anticipate the work of later composers like Sondheim. This ambitious pastiche creates a wide-ranging emotional world that is satisfying on its own, but it is absolutely divine when performed by this versatile cast.

While most of the original score remains intact, Nicholaw and Berman have made some minor edits, turning three acts into two. Most notably, the "Abbondanza" reprise has been cut, which is a shame considering what an audience favorite it was in the first act. Of course, Blickenstaff and Johnson's hilarious "Goodbye, darlin' / I like ev'rybody" duet is more than enough comic relief after Hensley's powerful and heartfelt "Mamma, Mamma." Blickenstaff's portrayal is sweet and salty while Johnson's is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They make a great pair.

The Most Happy Fella is a bridge between the worlds of early 20th-century opera and modern musical theater. You won't want to miss the opportunity to see this incredibly unique and special show in its fully orchestrated glory.