By Brian Scott Lipton
City Center’s ENCORES has been one of New York’s greatest treasures for three decades, having produced such extraordinary semi-staged shows as “Chicago” and “Wonderful Town,” but the long-running series may have just hit a new height with Casey Nicholaw’s magnificent rendering of “The Most Happy Fella.”
This stunning production captures all the warmth, humor, and heart of Frank Loesser’s beloved 1956 quasi-opera about “Rosabella” (Laura Benanti), a young San Francisco-waitress who agrees to marry older Napa Valley vineyard Tony (Shuler Hensley) – even after she learns that he sent her a photo of handsome foreman Joe (Cheyenne Jackson) instead of himself in an attempt to make her fall in love with him.
Nicholaw may not have the gazillion-dollar budget that Disney just afforded him on Broadway’s “Aladdin,” but he has something even more valuable – a cast of 38 remarkable singer-dancers who brilliantly execute his alternatively balletic and athletic choreography, and the extraordinary 38-piece ENCORES orchestra (under the direction of Rob Berman), who bring each note of Loesser’s deliciously varied score to full life.
Indeed, one of the joys of “Fella” is just how extensively Loesser uses his extensive musical vocabulary. Benanti’s shimmering soprano, coupled with her flawless acting, allows this beautiful actress to make the most of such soaring ballads as “Somebody Somewhere,” “Warm All Over,” and “My Heart Is So Full of You.” If this performance doesn’t make Benanti a superstar, there’s simply no justice in the theater world!
Meanwhile, Hensley’s baritone is a bit light for the score, but his deeply felt portrayal of the self-deprecating Tony is so spot-on that numbers like “Rosabella” and “Mamma Mamma” practically earn instant applause. The ever-hunky Jackson proves perfectly suited, vocally and otherwise, to the role of the feckless, restless Joe, and his rendition of “Joey, Joey, Joey,” – one of the score’s best-known numbers – is beyond reproach.
Even better are the super-sassy Heidi Blickenstaff and the ultra-adorable (and remarkably nimble) Jay Armstrong Johnson as lovers Clio and Herman, who stop the show repeatedly, especially during Nicholaw’s expansive staging of the infectious “Big D.” There are also memorable turns by the divine Jessica Molaskey as Tony’s unhappy younger sister Marie, the gorgeous-voiced Kevin Vortmann as the local doctor, and Zachary James, Bradley Dean, and Brian Cali as a trio of farmhands who practically had the crowd on its feet after their spirited rendition of “Abbodanza”.
With Loesser’s greatest masterwork, “Guys and Dolls,” getting a star-studded Carnegie Hall staging this week and this extraordinary revival in town (through Sunday night), musical theater lovers could frankly not ask for anything more!
“The Most Happy Fella” at New York City Center (131 W. 55th Street). Through Sunday, April 6. 212-581-1212.