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A Night at the Opera House

There are some definite advantages to seeing a musical like The Most Happy Fella in a very large theater. logo
The cast of the New York City Opera production of The Most Happy Fella in "Big D"
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)

Of course, I knew I wasn't in a Broadway theater from the enormous size of the proscenium arch and the many balconies surrounding the house. But I might have known it anyway just from seeing the top of a harp peeking out of the orchestra pit. I guess there are a few Broadway pits that still have a harp in them, but I imagine they're more of a given at an opera house -- the New York City Opera's State Theatre, to be specific, which is where I am seeing The Most Happy Fella.

The house lights dim and conductor George Manahan walks out to our applause. Why doesn't this happen on Broadway? Did it ever? I sure don't mind giving a hand to a person who's had to work awfully hard to reach this lofty position. Manahan started the show, and the curtain went up on a meticulously painted scrim. Remember curtains going up? Remember scrims? Broadway once routinely had them, but now they're not a given.

Michael Anania's sets for Happy Fella are gorgeous, akin to the Broadway musical opulence of yore. Note that an orchestra ticket for a musical here is only $8.75 more than one on Broadway, if you include that Broadway theater restoration fee, which City Opera doesn't charge. (I'd better shut up before I give them any ideas.) But scene two shows me the biggest difference between a Broadway production and an opera house production. When we arrive at the Napa Valley, I see a valley full of villagers on-stage -- many more than I'm used to seeing on Broadway. The singers and dancers up there constitute a larger population than many towns in Wyoming and, more to the point, more than the entire casts of Jersey Boys and Rent combined. There are so many merry villagers that, at the end of the number, some can hoist others onto their shoulders. Later, when the guys sing that they're standing on the corner, watching all the girls go by, there are enough girls going by to really warrant the word "all." Later still, how nice it is to see "Big D" performed by so many people. Just when you think the entire chorus is on stage, out come even more singers and dancers from the wings. Abbondanza!

Speaking of "Abbonzanza": Even though The Most Happy Fella was written in English and is being performed in that language at NYCO, the show's lyrics are supertitled. Maybe we could institute this practice on Broadway. Is there anyone out there who believes that he catches each and every lyric in a Broadway show? What's more, the supertitles allow us the chance to read those Frank Loesser lyrics, which reinforce how lovely they are and the fact that he was a unique talent. Who else would think to start a song, "Like a perfumed woman?" Joe sings that, and though he's a womanizer, Loesser took care not to make him crude. You'll hear that again -- and read it, too -- as he sings, "When I've had all I want of the ladies in the neighborhood."

At first, the supertitles seem erratic for they don't include each sung word; and, every now and then, there's nothing on the screen while people are singing. By, George, I think I've got the rationale: Once a supertitle dispenses a lyric, it doesn't bother to repeat it. Okay. What more than makes up for this is that the Italian words in the score aren't supertitled in their native language but are translated into English. Of course! That's what happens with the operas that are done here. As someone who doesn't know a word of Italian -- my parents spoke it but preferred not to teach me, so they could talk and keep things from me -- I find these supertitles fascinating. Sure, I know that "abbondanza" means "abundance," but to find that some other words in the song mean "What a spread to fill every belly" is welcome.

Lord knows, a great number of us musical theater enthusiasts are filling the seats for this production; but, clearly, there are traditional operagoers and subscribers here, too. Is this story with a happy ending a breath of fresh air for people who usually endure the trials and tribulations of Tosca and Madame Butterfly? A classical music critic I know dismisses Broadway musicals as "candy." Ah, so that's why I love them so! I never met a candy bar I didn't like.

I also note that the audience applauds vigorously when the dancers position themselves in a line to make two rows, then pick up a parallel-to-the-stage Cleo and flip her over and over again down the line. Granted, some of those clapping could be musical theater fans, but I suspect they're operagoers who don't see this type of move when they attend Turandot or Lucia di Lammermoor. I don't hear any moans when our heroine learns that, after a single instance of sexual intercourse, she's pregnant. This plot twist strikes many musical theater enthusiasts as melodramatic, but to those who have sat through the excesses of Meyerbeer's Robert Le Diable or Massenet's Werther, it probably seems perfectly acceptable.

As for the New York State Theatre itself: For those of us who are built like Tony, the extra wide seats are a boon. Having more leg-room also hits the spot. True, the seats could be a little more generous with their padding, though I have plenty of my own on me at all times from all the aforementioned candy bars. Still, I feel sad that I'm not getting this lavish production in a Broadway house. It's the way I felt at Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1992: Sure, the material's great and so are the people doing it, but this should be in one of our own theaters. That's where we really feel at home.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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