Photos: "The Most Happy Fella" at Theo Ubique
For a vicarious experience of Frank Loesser’s "The Most Happy Fella" at Theo Ubique Theatre, imagine coming inside from the slate-gray skies of a chilly night in an inevitable Chicago March, uncorking a bottle of one of the Napa Valley’s most fragrant and harmonious products and then letting that wine fill your nose, tickle your tonsils and play the most beautiful melodies in the back of your throat.
Since this Rogers Park mainstay is a jewel box of a theatrical space — no bigger than a typical Starbucks — it’s not unusual for its typically craftful theatrical products to be immersive experiences. But this production, one of my favorites in many years of Theo Ubique musicals, is truly exceptional in its musical prowess and in its ebullient evocation of the uneasy sensuality that informs a show that is incredibly difficult to produce with this minimal level of resources.
Yet the music explodes all around you — at times, the singing is so powerful in this confined space that, despite the all-acoustic nature of these proceedings, you feel like your head has been blown back in the California wind by a dozen younger singers, a violinist, a cellist, a violist and Jeremy Ramey, who musical directs from the piano.
Productions of this work are rare in Chicago these days. Loesser always insisted that "The Most Happy Fella" was just a musical comedy, but it’s really an operetta, a genre that has waned in popularity even as it has remained costly to produce. There are more than 40 wildly diverse musical numbers in this three-act show — enough for at least three musicals by modern standards — and most of director Fred Anzevino’s cast members, all clearly laboring for love, are operatically trained.
You could argue that the book to this romantic 1956 musical with the sexist title — it’s the story of a hastily arranged marriage between an initially duplicitous older man and the much younger waitress for whom he falls — is problematic by today’s standards, and you’d be right, although this is a production both respectful to material that cleaned up at the Tony Awards of 1956 and yet just subversive enough to downplay the sentimentality while expanding the sensual complexity (and the plea for tolerance) that was there from the start.
"Happy Fella" is indebted to the sexual tensions explored in "Oklahoma," and not just in its use of a comedic character couple (Cleo and Herman, played here by Courtney Jones and Joe Giovannetti) who are dead ringers for that musical’s Will Parker and Ado Annie. Just like Oscar Hammerstein, Loesser was interested in probing the psyche of his ingenue lead, Rosabella (Molly Hernandez), the struggling Frisco waitress who heads to Napa to marry Tony, a man she thinks is a handsome vineyard foreman but who turns out to be, in fact, the charming owner of a vineyard whose vintage is formidable.
On the way to that less-than-thrilling destiny, Rosabella does meet Joe (Ken Singleton), the handsome young foreman (a kinder version of "Oklahoma’s" Jud Fry) whose picture the potential groom had borrowed, and the frisky pair have a brief, passionate affair among the vines, even as Loesser’s score (and the designer Adam Veness’ remarkably verdant setting) ripples with symbols of fertility. But that lovemaking is the complication. The question of the night is the consequence: Can Tony and Rosabella, both fallen figures in the show’s eyes, now forge a future?
Most stagings of this work are concert-style treatments that explore the wild and crazy score, which sometimes echoes Franz Lehar, sometimes Richard Rodgers and occasionally Loesser’s own "Guys and Dolls." This is not one of those stagings. Hernandez, a very young singer who still is in college, offers up a truly gorgeous performance in the lead role, aided no doubt by Ramey’s musical direction, but not least because of the richness of her attention to her character’s innate sadness. Hernandez — look out for that name — is a huge talent. I was knocked out by the Act 2 scene that seems to require her sad Rosabella to do little more than sit on a bus out of town, but Hernandez seems to carry the world on her young shoulders.
William Roberts, who plays Tony, is an opera singer who’s new to town. He’s still a little young for the role and less comfortable with such intimate acting, but you do not generally get to hear voices of this quality in circumstances so personal. The supporting cast — from Jones and Giovannetti to Singleton, Jonathan Wilson and most of the ensemble, is similarly pleasing to the ear. Better yet, the show really has an exceptional ensemble spirit — you could sense the pleasure these actors are taking here from being surrounded by so many voices of peer quality, and getting to raise up their collective song in a space so small as to be easily dominated by such harmonious melodies, from "Somebody, Somewhere" on down.
That said, the cast (especially Giovannetti, yet another big talent performing for the first time in Chicago) also imbues the total switcheroo that the score often requires. Loesser, after all, was one of Frank Sinatra’s favorite composers, and sometimes you gotta swing from those vines to nail, say, "Standing on the Corner," a song more Tin Pan Alley than Napa Valley. And you also have to do so without overplaying, which is avoided here like Two Buck Chuck.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: The Most Happy Fella (4 STARS)
When: Through May 7
Where: Theo Ubique Theatre, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $34-$39 (an optional dinner is $25) at 800-595-4849 or www.theo-u.org