Based on Sidney Howard's play They Knew What They Wanted, Loesser's Happy Fella concerns the emotional turmoil that erupts when an older Italian vintner uses a photo of his young, handsome ranch foreman to lure a pretty waitress to Napa Valley as his mail-order bride. Though the show is largely through-composed, there are plenty of dialogue sections -- not to mention scads of arias, duets, and concerted numbers -- that call upon performers to display the heights of emotions ranging from deep despair to great joy.
A trio of superb principals galvanizes The Gallery Players' Fella, and that includes the guy in the title role. Truth to tell, Larry Brustofski's light, pleasant, mid-range baritone is not quite powerful or technically polished enough to adequately handle the challenging music that Loesser created for Tony Esposito. But Brustofski tries hard and succeeds well enough that his singing doesn't by any means create a poor impression. Most importantly, his acting is so fine that his vocal shortcomings seem negligible, and that's saying something. (Among many thrilling moments I might cite, Brustofski is the first Tony in my memory not to evoke an unintended laugh with an awkwardly written line in the final scene -- the remark about Rosabella getting scared and having the "accident" that leads to her pregnancy. Brustofski said this with such tenderness that, rather than causing titters, the line prompted empathetic sighs from several women in the audience.)
Even more impressive than this Tony is his Rosabella, one Jacquelyn Baker, here making her New York debut (!!!) but soon to be snapped up by some lucky musical theater group or opera company and handed one great role after another. Imagine sitting in a basement theater in Brooklyn and coming across a singer/actress of such exceptional talent that you want to pull out your cell phone, call every major theater reviewer in New York City, and insist that they come and see her performance. (I didn't do that, but the thought did cross my mind.) With her gorgeous, well-focused, silvery soprano and her wonderfully fresh acting ability, Baker is The Real Thing.
Which is not to say that the other major roles have been given short shrift here. Christopher Gleason and Laura Beth Wells are warm, funny, and appealing as Herman and Cleo, the show's secondary romantic couple. Though a rather severe vocal wobble hampers the efforts of Roxann Kraemer, she still offers a committed characterization of Marie, Tony's jealous, lonely sister. And as Joey, Joey, Joey, the charming but feckless young stud who acts as a major catalyst for the trials of Tony and Rosabella, Jason Mills is right up there with Jacquelyn Baker in terms of vocal and dramatic excellence. The part needs to be cast with someone who is not only super handsome and sexy but also boasts a full, semi-legit baritenor and also is a good enough actor to negotiate his way through some very tricky scenes. Mills scores on all counts.
A beloved product of Broadway's golden age, Happy Fella has an abbondanza of juicy character parts. Standouts in this production include Zach Wobensmith, David Scott Baker, and Jeremiah Griffin, who delight the audience with their pinpoint-accurate, three-part harmony as Tony's cooks Pasquale, Ciccio, and Giuseppe. And though Greg Horton doesn't sing that well as Doc, he acts this small but difficult role so skillfully that it hardly matters.
Which brings me to the two major disappointments of the production. First, it is not played nearly as well as it's sung. If you're going to do Happy Fella without an orchestra, you'd better make sure that you have an incredibly talented artist at your disposal to handle the piano reduction of the mammoth score. Though the fellow who accompanies this production doesn't at all disgrace himself, neither does he allow the score to take flight. (Michael Smith is credited as musical director and, since no pianist is separately credited, I guess he's the guy at the ivories.) Oh, and there is one inexplicable cut in the score: the final section of the trio "She Gonna Come Home Wit' Me." Why Smith would choose to excise one minute of music from a score that is otherwise being performed virtually note-complete is hard to fathom.
Though Happy Fella does have one big, famous dance number ("Big 'D'"), the show is famous (or infamous!) for its vocal and dramatic hurdles. How ironic that the other big disappointment of The Gallery Players' production is its choreography, one of the least challenging aspects of this show. Michael D. Pilon has come up with steps that seem corny and trite even in a musical that was written in 1956 and set in 1927. And he has compounded those sins through overkill, moving the cast around and around even while they are negotiating difficult vocal passages.
Ideally, director Cara Reichel would have insisted on better choreography and a better piano player for this production. Nor should she have allowed that weird cut in the show's most beautiful trio. But, in every other way, Reichel's direction is exemplary. All of the performers seem to be living "in the moment" from the first scene to the final blackout. For example: Some throwaway lines after Joe's last exit are delivered with such honesty and simplicity by Tommy Vance and a few of the other ensemble members that you truly feel you're at that train station, watching a real-life drama unfold.
The greatest compliment I can give this Happy Fella is that, at the show I attended, audience interest never flagged throughout the musical's two-and-a-half-hour length (not counting intermission), even though the performance took place in a non-air conditioned auditorium on a warm, humid evening. Each of the cast members must have lost a couple of pounds through sheer perspiration, and they should know how very much their efforts are appreciated.