Under the grapevines

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday May 4, 2016
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Martin Rojas Dietrich and Amanda Johnson play a Napa<br>Valley rancher and a San Francisco waitress who become unlikely spouses in <i>The<br>Most Happy Fella</i> at the Eureka Theatre.<br>Photo: David Allen
Martin Rojas Dietrich and Amanda Johnson play a Napa
Valley rancher and a San Francisco waitress who become unlikely spouses in The
Most Happy Fella
at the Eureka Theatre.
Photo: David Allen

It doesn't take much to get the characters to sing in The Most Happy Fella. A case of sore feet, meeting someone from Dallas, making a fist, or just standing on the corner watching all the girls go by is enough reason to break into a song. The characters barely have time to eke out a line of dialogue before both workaday activities and passionate romances erupt musically. The need for singing talent is obvious, and because so much of the characters' natures must be communicated in the songs, you need good singers who also have plenty of personality.

These are substantial requirements, and may be one reason why Frank Loesser's 1956 Broadway hit is so seldom seen. But 42nd Street Moon has assembled one of its most vocally accomplished casts for this revival at the Eureka Theatre, making the production a standout for the troupe that presents seldom-seen musicals and offering a rich introduction to The Most Happy Fella for those who have never seen it before.

This was Loesser's follow-up to Guys and Dolls, and in its day it created confusion among critics and audiences. The consistently playful tone of Guys and Dolls was replaced with something frequently more serious, using the libretto also by Loesser as little more than an outline on which to hook the songs. But it differs from more contemporary musicals like The Phantom of the Opera or Sweeney Todd with their sung-through operatic structures. All the songs in The Most Happy Fella are stand-alone affairs, and while there is considerable humor in the show, the tone is more about heartbreak and aching romance than anything else.

Martin Rojas Dietrich plays Tony, a Napa Valley rancher originally from Italy, whose love-letter affair with a much younger San Francisco waitress expands into a marriage proposal. But as Tony's possessive sister cruelly tells him, he is old, unattractive, and none-too-bright. So he mails off a picture of a handsome ranch foreman to help entice his Rosabella to Napa Valley. You don't need to consult the program bios to figure out that Dietrich has credits in opera, and his voice soars in Loesser's sweeping ballads. But he can also put across the character's jauntier tunes to create a character who may just possibly be lovable.

As the waitress who arrives from San Francisco willing to jump into marriage with a man she has never met, Amanda Johnson delivers an enchanting performance of a directionless woman named Amy who is easy prey for the romanticized version of herself that Tony offers from afar. Johnson expertly plays the conflicted character, renamed Rosabella by Tony, who is so disappointed when she meets the man she has promised to marry that she has a sexual affair on her wedding day with the ranch foreman she had pictured as her husband.

Other high-quality performances are delivered by Nicole Frydman as Amy's wisecracking best friend, Robbie Rescigno as her good-natured beau, Caroline Altman as Tony's dream-busting sister, and Noel Anthony as the ranch foreman whose liaison with Amy has huge consequences. This is the kind of musical in which the ensemble is quick to arrive no matter where the action is taking place, and the choral work is exemplary. Adding a big dose of friskiness are Daniel Olson, Scott Maraj, and Tim Wagner as a trio of Italian cooks who love to sing about the feasts they seem always to be preparing.

Director-choreographer Cindy Goldfield, an accomplished performer herself, brings forth a finely tuned production with lively dance steps that comfortably meld with the cast's talents. Resident musical director Dave Dobrusky is at the piano leading the three-piece accompaniment that creates an especially rich sound. That's of particular importance in The Most Happy Fella, a musical that hardly knows what to do with itself when not bursting into song.

 

The Most Happy Fella will run through May 15 at the Eureka Theatre. Tickets are $25-$75. Call (415) 255-8207 or go to 42ndstmoon.org.