By Barry Reszel
There are times when a tender, old- school, near opera really hits the spot.
And when that spot is Rogers Park’s No Exit Cafe and the show is Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s, The Most Happy Fella, one of those times is now.
Fella is Frank Loesser‘s hyper-sentimental, seldom-performed musical comedy written in 1956. Though he’s better known for Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, this odd, gentle love story, adapted from Sidney Howard’s 1920s play, They Knew What They Wanted, focuses on an unlikely courting and marriage of an older man and younger woman. The tale is complemented with a lush, operatic- and ballad-laden songbook including enough dulcet harmonies and full-cast showstoppers to please every musical theatre patron.
The warmhearted storyline begins with single, middle-aged, Italian-American, Napa Valley vineyard owner Tony smitten by a gorgeous, young waitress in San Francisco, leaving his amethyst tie tack as her tip.
When he returns home, Tony begins a letter correspondence with the woman he calls “Rosabella,” the waitress named Amy. As their relationship deepens to the point of exchanging photos, he sends one of his handsome, young foreman, Joey, convinced that actually sending a photo of himself would end Rosabella’s interest in him.
After receiving the photo, Rosabella agrees to move to Napa and marry Tony, setting the tale on a often comic, dramatic and sometimes sad mixture of events, misunderstandings, emotions and insights into relationships and an examination of love’s true meaning. (A full plot summary with spoilers and production history may be read here.)
It’s all blessedly wrapped in Loesser’s rich music and lyrics. Highlights abound from the 40-plus numbered songbook and include “Standing on the Corner;” ” Joey, Joey, Joey;” “Sposalizio;” “Big D;” and the title song, among many, many others.
Brilliant Director Fred Anzevino and his luminescent creative team, including Assistant Director Courtney Crouse, Choreographer James Beaudry and Musical Director Jeremy Ramey (who is always fun to watch as he plays and conducts his orchestra), truly get every ounce of talent and effort from their 13-member cast. Large for Theo’s current 50ish-person venue, the spot-on ensemble uses every smidge of Adam Vaness‘ lovely Napa Valley vineyard set and are costumed to perfection in Bill Morey‘s rich, fruit-infused threads.
True to every show staged in this, Theo Ubique’s 20th season, Anzevino attracts the top non-Equity talent in Chicagoland. Fella puts an exclamation point on this truth.
The cast is led by utterly authentic William Roberts, a national opera performer whose resonant voice and rich Italian accent combine to milk the requisite sympathy for his Tony from audience members and his Rosabella. His big heart is particularly evident in booming out the title song along with the melodic “Rosabella” and the duet with his love, “My Heart is So Full of You.”
Tony’s better half is played with perfect youthfully bashful sensitivity by Loyola sophomore Molly Hernandez. She is a truly gifted singer and actress whose face would adorn a Times Square billboard if this show were being staged in New York. Hernandez carries the greatest burden of this dense songbook, truly shining in every song she sings. In particular, highlights for this reviewer include the duets with Roberts, “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance” and “My Heart is So Full of You,” and her solo performances “The Letter,” “Somebody, Somewhere,” “Aren’t You Glad,” “Warm All Over” and “Please Let Me Tell You,” among others.
Several additional standout solo performances deserve mention. Philadelphia’s Ken Singleton debuts in Chicago with great aplomb as the hyper-masculine vineyard foreman Joe. His place in the awkward love triangle isn’t quite fully developed in this script, though his talent is undeniable. That’s particularly so as belts songs like “Joey, Joey, Joey;” leads the cast in the Act 2 showstopper “Fresno Beauties”/”Cold and Dead;” and croons tender duets like “Don’t Cry” (with Hernandez) and trios like “How Beautiful the Days” (with Roberts and Hernandez).
So, too, Courtney Jones truly shines as as Rosabella’s waitress friend Cleo who comes to the vineyard, at Tony’s behest, to work. Her arrival is an example of Fella‘s tender subtleties, paralleling the little things in life that illuminate love; Tony brings Cleo to Napa as a gift to his bride, fearing for her loneliness. It’s a truly sweet gesture reminiscent of times past.
That said, Jones really sings the heck out this role, kicking off the show with the playful, “Ooh! My Feet” and “I Know How it Is” and joining in numerous duets and trios, none finer than her teaming with Tony’s pessimistic sister (well played by Sarah Simmons) in “I Don’t Like This Dame.” Joe Giovannetti, an excellent physical actor with a terrific voice, is a wholesome love interest to counter Cleo’s brashness.
The excellent ensemble singing of Roy Brown, Erik Dohner, David Gordon-Johnson, Ryan Armstrong, Hope Elizabeth Schafer, Theresa Egan and Jonathan Wilson provides a harmonic highlight. Their great execution of Beaudry’s inventive and upbeat choreography, particularly in the all-cast numbers (“The Most Happy Fella,” “Fresno Beauties”/”Cold and Dead” and “Big D”), gives patrons another.
So take a trip to Anzevino’s “whole Napa Valley” in Rogers Park, where his Most Happy Fella offers a perfectly executed, big, old-fashioned musical that’s lovingly sculpted into an intimate space to share insight into the subtleties of human love.
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents “The Most Happy Fella” through May 14 at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.