THE MOST HAPPY FELLA at Theo Ubique, Theatre Review – Love, Longing, and Loneliness

 

A heavy snow shower engulfed Chicago the night I attended Theo Ubique’s production of The Most Happy Fella (or, as my autocorrect likes to call it, The Happiest Fellow), but once the overture began, I instantly felt the cold begin to thaw. All thoughts about having to trudge back home through the snow in my unprepared slippery dress shoes receded in my mind as the operatic sounds and colorful sights of a warm, happy spring season swiftly enveloped me.

 

L-R: Molly Hernandez, William Roberts

 

For a show set in Napa Valley, where seasonal changes are essentially nonexistent, Fella is all about the joy, beauty, and promises that a blooming springtime can bring about. It’s not about the weather here, but it's about the promises and sense of fresh excitement that only spring can bring about. Of course, the season is also synonymous with sexual renewal. Granted, it’s the kind of awakening your grandparents' generation is more accustomed to seeing on stage.

 

Fella, after all, unfolds its tale of rejuvenation, betrayal, and healing with an optimistic stroke. It’s the type of old-fashioned theatre you’d expect from something first presented in 1956, but with some grown-up twists and realizations. Sex is hinted, even central to the plot, but never openly discussed. True to 50s repression, these were more innocent times, one in which the whole ensemble can sing and dance to an entire number called, “Big D,” with the “D” standing for the city of Dallas and nothing else.

 

William Roberts

 

Based on Sidney Howard’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize winning play, They Knew What They Wanted, Tony Esposito (William Roberts), a middle-aged Italian immigrant has fallen madly in love with a young waitress (Molly Hernandez) during a trip to San Francisco. Being too shy to talk to her he instead writes her a love letter on the back of a menu, pouring his heart out to the young woman that he calls “Rosabella” (we later find out that her real name is Amy).

 

The two soon have a back-and-forth “love affair” through letters. Rosabella becomes so taken with Tony that in short-order she agrees to move to Napa and marry him. But first asks him to send her a photograph of himself and he cowers believing that once she sees what he looks like, and how old he is, she’ll call off the marriage. As Tony’s sister (Sarah Simmons) constantly reminds him that he’s neither young, handsome, or smart (and he talks funny). So instead, he foolishly sends her a photograph of his young, handsome foreman Joe (Ken Singleton) as his own. In short order, Rosabella arrives in Napa to officially meet (and marry) the man she believes to be Tony. She encounters Joe, and a series of complicated events escalate.

 

L-R: Molly Hernandez, William Roberts

 

The plot could never work in today’s fast-paced world of internet, social media, and smartphones... Or, on second thought, maybe it could, it would just involve a “catfish” plotline of some stranger hiding behind another’s identity online. Regardless, the whole concept of a “mail-order” bride is sexist by any standards today. Fella tries to make the concept seem romantic and sweet in the end. I just found it creepy.

 

Thankfully, the heavy love triangle between Rosabella, Tony, and Joe contrasts with the more comedic romance that develops between Rosabella’s friend, and co-worker, Cleo (Courtney Jones) and, one of Tony’s hired hands, Herman (Joe Giovannetti) - a secondary plotline straight out of Oklahoma’s Ado Annie and Will Parker.

 

L-R: Ken Singleton, William Roberts

 

There has been an extensive and, in my opinion, pointless debate about how to categorize Fella as a genre. Is it a musical or an opera? Although first presented on Broadway, nowadays Fella is more likely to be seen as part of a seasonal repertoire at regional opera houses. Critics at the time referred to the show with a mix of puzzling terms like, “music drama,” “a most operatic musical,” and a “musical opera.” For all the bewildering terminology, Fella is essentially an operetta.

 

But the show’s creator, Frank Loesser, vehemently maintained this was just a simple musical comedy. Fella is considered his magnum opus and was his chance to prove himself as a writer. Unfortunately, he’s remembered most for “Baby, its Cold Outside,” a duet he wrote and performed with his wife for parties that became so popular MGM bought the rights and turned it into an odd standard holiday tune.

 

L-R: Jonathan Wilson, Molly Hernandez, Roy Brown, Erik Dohner

 

Unlike his other works, where Loesser worked as a collaborator as composer and lyricist (Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed…), Loesser wrote Fella entirely by himself. And I do mean everything: score, compositions, lyrics, libretto, and even the stage directions. No small feat in a show that runs almost 3 hours long, with over 40 songs, three acts and an orchestra that in the original production called for over 38 instruments in the pit. For the record, in Theo Ubique's production, there is only one intermission, they’ve trimmed the material to make the running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, and there are only four instrumentalists used.

 

Fella displays Loesser’s playful spirit. Much of the layered music is lush, sweeping, and anthemic. It defines the characters as much as their lyrics do and gives the show a vitality that would otherwise be languorous to sit through. Themes of longing and loneliness are explored with a surprising amount of psychological underpinnings to make Rosabella and Tony’s plight seem all the more complex than they are on the surface. There’s also an intelligent mix of musicality. Tony and Rosabella have operatic arias suggesting they will end up together. Joe’s songs are jazzy and smooth. While Cleo and Herman have more traditional Broadway tunes that highlight their musical comedy roles.

 

L-R: Ken Singleton, Molly Hernandez

 

Director Fred Anzevino is well-known for taking large pieces and downsizing them to work in an immersive staging environment. I truly admire his work. However, I seriously question why Fella needed to be in such a small venue. Instead of adding intimacy this whole production felt unnecessarily compressed. Fella is a wide-ranging exhaustive operatic piece, set in the vast spaciousness of a Napa Valley winery. Therefore, it’s clearly intended to be served best in a sizable auditorium. So why feel the need to set it in a cabaret theatre? It’s ambitious for sure, but totally unjustified by Loesser’s material.

 

Given the constricted space, some of the performances felt more exaggerated than necessary. In a larger theatre their actions would have gone unnoticed, but things don’t necessarily translate as well when the performers are practically in your lap. The small space requires a more subdued camera-style of acting, one that conflicts with the often gigantic style that operettas usually maintain (another reason why I feel Fella is totally out of place). The minuscule spacing also reduced James Beaudry’s choreography down to basic hoe-downs and three-step turns. This talented cast is capable of so much more.

 

And, while I applaud this skillfully trained cast for their diction, in which every lyric is heard clearly (a very impressive feat for a mostly operatic score), I still left the theatre with a pounding headache. Some of the more emotive solo arias are belted so loudly right next to your ear that it was seriously painful at times. Less is more in such intimate corridors.

 

William Roberts

 

William Roberts, a trained opera singer with a booming voice, despite loads of charm and enthusiasm, is still far too young to be playing Tony. It’s a problem considering the age differences are a major concern affecting the relationship dynamic, and insecurities, between Rosabella and Tony. It’s also one that this production is never able to resolve fully. Though Roberts is playing him as older, he still comes across as an energetic young man. He’s not the dumb, unfit or old man that Tony’s described as – undermining why he’d feel so worthless to send someone else’s photos. It also makes Tony’s sister seem like she has a more sinister intent.

 

L-R: Molly Hernandez, Ken Singleton

 

Molly Hernandez is still giving it her all as Rosabella despite this. The actress practically carries this show’s emotional core on her shoulder. Her hopeless sense of desperation is both fascinating and compelling to watch. A very impressive performance for such a young actress still in college. And Ken Singleton’s Joe reveals a terrific sense of lustful longings in his gorgeously sung number, “Joey, Joey, Joey.”

 

L-R: Joe Giovannetti, Courtney Jones

 

Nothing in the darker love triangle plotline prepares you for the jolts of energy that comes with a happy smile-jerking delight every time Courtney Jones and Joe Giovannetti take the stage as Cleo and Herman. Jones is an absolute joy to watch. What I love most about this talented actress is discovering how specific she gets with her character's choices. Jones does tons of work but makes it all seem seamlessly fun. And Giovannetti is so honest, endearing and innocent in his dopey role that I was shocked to discover that this is his first, of what I hope will be many, Chicago productions. The actor hits it out of the park with his role. 

 

There are many great things in this production, far more than the concerns I had. I only wish it were in a bigger theatre, not just for the reasons described above, but because this production deserves a larger audience than the current venue can provide. Meraviglioso!

 

Bottom Line: The Most Happy Fella is recommended

THE MOST HAPPY FELLA – Theo Ubique

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Location: No Exit Café, 6970 N Glenwood Ave, Chicago (located off of the Morse Red Line station in Rodgers Park)

Runs through: Sunday, May 7

Curtain Times: Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Sundays at 7 PM. There are additional performances on Wednesday, March 15 at 2 PM and Sunday, March 12 at 7:30 PM)

Tickets and Reservations: $34 (Thursdays and Sundays), $39 (Fridays and Saturdays)

Group and Premium Tickets: $4 discount for seniors and students. All unsold seats are $15 at the door with college ID. Tickets will be sold on site, cash only, at curtain. Subject to availability on a first come, first served basis.

Dinner Addition and Menu: $25 (optional and requires advance reservation) Dinner menu for “Most Happy Fella”: Appetizer – Insalata Mista with balsamic vinaigrette, Entrée - Lasagne di Verdure and Garlic Bread, Dessert – Citrus Champagne sorbet

Photo Credits: Adam Veness

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