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Open: 06/14/12- Close: 07/08/12 Most Happy Fella
Reviewed for By: Minda Larsen

The anticipation surrounding DiCapo Opera’s production of Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella” has been tangible. Friends and colleagues in both the operatic and Broadway worlds alike have been shouting praises for this production since its first opening in March.  I found myself caught up in the excitement and jumped at the chance to attend this musical (or is it operatic?) revival.

As the lights dimmed, an elderly gentleman sitting next to me leaned over, “I’m so excited,” he whispered, “I even wore my good shirt!” 

Hmmm...DiCapo might be on to something here.

Set in the 1920’s, “Happy Fella” follows the story of the gruff, yet vulnerable and kindly character of Tony, a Napa Valley vineyard owner who falls for a sweet, pretty young waitress he meets in a San Francisco restaurant. They begin a long-distance romance, sending postcards and letters; a sort of 1920’s style As is so often the case with these sort of romances, Tony, in a desperate effort to please the young waitress, decides to send his crush, Rosabella, a photograph of his young, handsome employee instead of himself; heeding his sister’s warnings that he is too old and too ugly.

And thus, the story unfolds and we are hooked! Loesser’s soaring, melodic score and achingly human love story is impossible to resist.

The success of “Happy Fella” is dependent almost entirely on its happy fella, and baritone Michael Corvino carries this responsibility nimbly on his apt shoulders. His booming baritone is quite operatic in scope, but maintains honesty and warmth and doesn’t feel put-on or showy.  His portrayal of Tony is endearing and simply put, loveable. His Italian accent and mannerisms were natural and never put-on. Kudos to Mr. Corvino for resisting the all too obvious trap this role presents.

His love interest was played by the honey-voiced Molly Mustonen. Her even singing was quite lovely and consistent and her portrayal of Rosabella, vulnerable and charming. Only at the climax of the work, when Rosabella is forced to tell Tony that she is pregnant with another man’s child, did Molly’s performance become a bit flat. I would have liked to see her raise the stakes, take a few more risks, and abandon her pretty singing for a bit more raw emotion.

 Lauren Hoffmeier played the feisty Cleo and her depiction of the Texas-born Southern girl was full of gusto and charm. Her open-throated belt is reminiscent of the by-gone days of Broadway (even possessed a bit of 1940’s swagger) and was quite thrilling to hear with no amplification and backed by the superb orchestra. Her love interest, the optimistic, happy-go-lucky Herman, was deftly played by the delightful Brance Cornelius. The two possessed great charisma and excellent comic timing. Both had the uncanny ability to deliver a deadpan one-liner and leave the audience in stitches.

 The ensemble consisted of superb singers and Michael Capasso, director, and Francine Harman, choreographer, made wise choices in simple, creative choreography showcasing the singer’s voices.  The production was missing a couple slap-down, big Broadway dance numbers, but given the small space and the quality of the production, they weren’t sorely missed.

Another noteworthy performance included Lisa Chavez in the thankless role of Tony’s sister, Marie. Ms. Chavez possesses a lush, fluid mezzo and inhabited the role of Marie, a woman much older than herself, with a steadfast conviction. It was puzzling why Marie was not played with an Italian accent, however, as Tony’s accent was quite thick. Ms. Chavez clearly possesses the acting chops to pull off an accent, and I think it would have bonded the siblings in the context of the story as well. 

I would be amiss not to mention that the sound and acoustics of this production were superb. To audiences that have become de-sensitized to the natural quality of the human voice and a live orchestra, it was riveting to hear a naked voice.   The excellent orchestra, at the baton of the fabulous Pacien Mazzagetti, is positioned upstage of the singers behind a scrim, allowing the singer’s voices to fully penetrate the house. 

“Happy Fella” blends the lines of opera and musical theater and the performers handled this combination terrifically. The “stand and sing” numbers were few and far between and even these power numbers were performed with a speech-like quality and with integrity to the lyric. My hat’s off to Mr. Capasso for allowing the human quality and truth of this production to shine, despite its soaring musical score.

 It is no wonder that audiences are flocking to this performance. Perhaps, DiCapo Opera is onto something here... could this stem a revival of classical American musical theater? A revival of good, unamplified, natural singing? A softening of the often harsh lines between opera and theater?  Let’s hope so. When and if DiCapo Opera decides to revive another American classic, I will be first in line. I think I’ll even wear my good shirt.

Dicapo Opera Theatre : 184 E. 76th Street