What a gem of a jewel is this rarely done masterwork! It’s what Candide was to Leonard Bernstein or Porgy and Bess to George Gershwin, a folk opera to rise above mere musicals. As wonderful as Guys and Dolls and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying remain (enough to put any composer/lyricist/bookwriter on the musical map forever), Frank Loesser’s “most operatic musical” culminates his career. This 1956 tribute to late-breaking love recalls South Pacific and Cyrano de Bergerac in its refusal to settle for surfaces. It requires classically-trained voices, as well as naturalistic performances and dynamite dancing—and it rewards them a hundredfold.
A show that asks for all can deliver it too, now notably in a pile-driving, electrifying revival by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at the No Exit Café in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. This spring the real “Broadway in Chicago” is high up on the North Side.
Fred Anzevino’s sterling staging does full justice to over 40 musical numbers. They pull their weight and draw us deep into a dozen resonant characters. That feat is just as wondrous as such hit tunes as “Standing on the Corner.” The trick, which really is no such thing, is just to prize and honor Loesser’s unstoppable tale of tested love and determined decency. There are no bad guys here, just conflicted dreamers in the Napa Valley seeking a little bliss to bring home and keep.
The plot, drawn from Sidney Howard’s drama and film They Knew What They Wanted, arcs as intimately as a mini-opera allows. Wonderfully, it provides powerful moments of fully earned heartbreak at non-negotiable intensity. A middle-aged virgin who’s spent his life caring for his overly protective sister, Marie (Sarah Simmons), and developing one of the finest vineyards in northern California, Tony Esposito (William Roberts) now wants a wife to share his prosperity and “plenty bambini” to continue the cultivation. But, to disapproving Marie, Tony should be happy just being rich.
After being drawn to Amy (Molly Hernandez), a San Francisco waitress, he makes a mail-order marriage proposal to his “Rosabella,” as she will henceforth be named. Imprudently, Tony also sends a false picture, not of his middle-aged self but of handsome farm foreman Joe (Ken Singleton). The false pretenses are enough to lure Rosabella, and later her Texan best friend Cleo (Courtney Jones), to Tony’s estate. (Tony’s sad subterfuge, of course, is an old-fashioned case of identity theft, now regularly repeated as “catfishing” on the Internet.)
An accident keeps Tony from enjoying the wedding celebration (“Sposalizio”) he envisions to welcome his fiancée. Perhaps it’s just as well: Rosabella has second thoughts, especially after she meets and yearns for sexy Joe. Just as inevitably, Cleo finds her beau in Herman (Joe Giovannetti), an uncharacteristically self-effacing Texan who likes everyone, loves Cleo, and finally conjures up some courage (“I Made a Fist”). (When this comic couple—very reminiscent of Will and Ado Annie in Oklahoma!—celebrate their Dallas origins in the huge production number “Big D,” the world feels briefly very right.)
But, as nomadic as romantic, Joe was born under a wandering star (the haunting “Joey, Joey, Joey”). His bond with Rosabella seems less deep and devoted than her growing attachment to the ardently considerate and ever grateful Tony (“My Heart Is So Full of You”). The genius of this “Broadway opera” is how it transforms what seemed improbable affection in an impossible liaison into the perfect excuse for harmonic wonders like the Espositos’ “How Beautiful the Days,” the delightful duo “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance,” and the glorious title number.
It’s exactly like Emile de Becque in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ode to mature passion or big-nosed Cyrano in Edmond de Rostand’s exploration of the warm core of true love: Tony—the embodiment of love but not sex—and Rosabella—the ultimate “special delivery”—dismiss the illusion of appearance and reinvent love from the inside out.
Perfectly pictured by Adam Veness as a lush and sprawling rural panorama with glowing grapevines, Tony’s world creates its own “abbondanza”: Fifteen unimprovable performers forge solid magic through three acts and 150 minutes. Choreographer James Beaudry’s downhome dances are what should happen at a hoedown. Even with a chamber orchestra of four, Jeremy Ramey’s musical direction distills the essence of Loesser’s golden score. And that’s as generous an outpouring of melodic genius, hardcore heartbreak and happiness, and contagious joy as any stage could ever contain. Bill Morey’s Eisenhower-era costumes are instantly nostalgic, and James Kolditz’s amber-toned lighting is so much California dreaming.
At the beating heart of this lovely epic are Roberts’ magnificent baritone and concentrated honesty and Hernandez’s sweet soprano and open-eyed embrace of unexpected tenderness. That combination proves as real as music makes life. Loesser’s lovely line says it all: “There is no room for anything more.”
photos by Adam Veness
The Most Happy Fella
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.
Thurs at 7:30; Fri & Sat at 8; Sun at 7
ends on May 7, 2017
for tickets, call 800.595.4849 or visit Theo Ubique
for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago