News Column

Goodspeed's 'Most Happy Fella' Showcases Glorious Voices In A Passionate Production

October 11, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 11--The show: "The Most Happy Fella" at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam.

What makes it special?: In 1991 Goodspeed's revival of the 1956 musical featured a two-piano arrangement. That production was a revelation and moved to Broadway. This version has seven musicians playing multiple instruments for a fuller sound.

First impressions: It's not about the seats in the pit as much as the size of its heart and this terrific production is bursting with love, passion, tenderness and joy. Gloriously sung, beautifully acted and produced with perfection, it, too, will be remembered as a Goodspeed milestone show.

What's it about?: Tony Esposito, an aging Italian immigrant who owns a California vineyard, falls for a lovely-but-weary San Francisco waitress whom he calls "Rosabella." He courts her through letters but when she asks for a picture of him he panics and sends her a photo of the handsome foreman in order for her to agree to come to Napa Valley and marry him.

The "mail order bride" arrives, discovers the deceit and is about to leave when Tony is terribly injured in an auto accident. In shock herself and feeling defeated, she resigns herself to marry him. As Tony recovers, their relationship grows tentatively but Tony's possessive sister and some disturbing news threaten to tear apart this delicate May-September union.

Sounds romantic: You don't get more heartfelt than this show with its brilliant score that, like a fine Cabernet blend, combines the best of many delectable ingredients. Think of it as Tin Pan Alley meets Broadway by way of the Met.

So some opera, too?: Emotions call for it when this fragile romance finally blooms into unquestionable, unwavering love when Bill Nolte as Tony sings "My Heart Is So Full Of You." Breathtaking.

There's also a comic Puccini touch with a trio of singers (Martin Sola, Greg Roderick, Daniel Berryman) letting loose with "Abbondanza" and a robust chorus singing "Sposalizio." But as flavorful as some of the big-note songs are -- including such pop hits as "Standing on the Corner" and "Big 'D' " -- what is most memorable are the smaller musical moments: when that same comic trio welcomes a shaken Rosabella with the exquisite "Benvenuta," or Tony soothing a neighbor's infant with "Plenty Bambini" or Tony's friends singing a capella in the theater's aisles with the haunting "Song of a Summer Night," or the number by Doc (Michael Deleget) prescribing patience to his patient, "Love and Kindness."

Though the story line covers a number of seasons, there's something richly autumnal about the production, and not just in John Lasiter's warm-all-over lighting or the color scheme of Michael Schweikardt's ravishing front and back drops. There's a feeling of last chances, of swan song, of one last burst of brilliance in the air, especially in the seasoned performance of Nolte as Tony. It's not just his strong singing but his deeply moving, deeply human performance that caps a career.

But the entire cast is outstanding, not the least of which Mamie Parris' Rosabella. Far from a simple ingenue, Parris is a tough as well as tender cookie and the audience is transformed with her, too, as she finds love where you least expected it. As Joe, Doug Carpenter has a stunning voice that does full justice to his great maverick aria, "Joey, Joey, Joey." Natalie Hill as Rosabella's galpal Cleo nails the comedy and show biz numbers as does Kevin Vortmann's Herman. Ann Arvia skillfully makes Tony's jealous sister if not sympathetic at least understandable (and the addition of the song "Eyes of Stranger" gives her more dimension).

Who will like it?: Romantics, oenophiles, Italians.

Who won't?: Perhaps those who are hesitant to be touched by such raw emotion and polished sentiment.

For the kids?: Mature relationships and some operatic soaring might not make it an ideal fit for kids but some savvy teens may appreciate this classy, classic production.

Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Goodspeed has struck gold twice, ending its 50th anniversary on a spectacular note.

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Director Rob Ruggiero is worthy successor to the late Gerald Guitierrez, who staged the previous Goodspeed "Fella," as well as other shows, known for their intimacy, sensitivity and naturalness. Ruggiero has made this his stage brand, too.

The Basics: The show runs through Dec. 1. Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Thanksgiving week's shows are 2 and 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 25, 2 and 8 p.m. on Nov. 29; 3 and 8 p.m. on Nov. 30 and 2 and 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 31. Tickets are $28 to $76.50. Information: 960-873-8668 and www.goodspeed.org.

Read my blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com.curtain. "Friend" me on Facebook at Frank Rizzo, and be the first to know by following me on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.

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(c)2013 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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