|Mamie Parris and Bill Nolte. Photo: Diane Sobolewski|
By Lauren Yarger
Bill Nolte's portrayal of an Italian vineyard owner who wants to get married in early 1950s California is so charming in Goodspeed's production of The Most Happy Fella, that it's hard not to run up on stage at the end of the Frank Loesser musical and propose.
The saga is solidly helmed by Rob Ruggiero with choreography by Parker Esse and despite a book (by Loesser) that sometimes leaps around some huge gaps, this revival is a sweet romance made delightful by Nolte's portrayal of Tony Esposito and a strong performance from Mamie Parris as his love interest, Rosabella.
When Tony first sees Rosabella in the diner where she is a waitress, he is too shy to ask her out, so he leaves her a jeweled tie pin and a note. (The really cool diner set juts out onto the stage decorated with grape vines and trellises that later become Tony's vineyard. Set Design by Michael Schweikardt with lighting by john Lasiter).
A penpal correspondence turns into a marriage proposal with Rosabella arriving in San Francisco's Napa Valley with only a photo of the man she has agreed to spend the rest of her life. Everyone in the town, and all of his workers are happy for the well-liked man who speaks with a heavy accent as he proclaims himself The Most Happy Fella with, "I'm a wanna get married!" except for Tony's sister, Marie (Ann Arvia), who is used to taking care of her brother herself and wonders just how much he knows about Rosabella.
There's another problem that threatens Tony's happiness too: convinced Rosabella never would be interested in an older, rough-around-the-edges guy, he sent her a photo of his much younger, fit and handsome foreman, Joe (Doug Carpenter) instead. Rosabella's arrival and the wedding festivities are harshly interrupted when Tony is severely injured in an accident. She marries him any way, despite the fact that she has is horrified to discover he is so old -- and the fact that she has a sudden, urgent attraction with Joe.
In the weeks that follow, Rosabella tries to adjust to caring for Tony and to life in the valley, where the arrival of the postman (John Payonk) causes the whole town to sing and dance with joy. Tony senses her loneliness and offers her waitress friend, Cleo (Natalie Hill), a job. She strikes up a friendship with shy, vulnerable vineyard worker Herman (Kevin Vortmann).
Meanwhile, Rosabella's feelings for Tony begin to deepen and she finally finds the words to tell him that she loves him "Like a Woman Loves a Man" and wants their marriage to become more intimate. A sudden revelation threatens their happiness, however, and Tony wonders whether "She's Gonna Come Home Wit Me."
The singing here is excellent, particularly Nolte's operatic voice and Parris and Carpenter, who sing the overly melody, "Don't Cry." The quartet of Herman, Jake, Clem and Al (Vortmann, Danny Lindgren, Noah Aberlin and Eric Ulloa) delights with "Standing on the Corner," which brings a groan of recognition from the audience as the only song really well known form the score.
The musical is a rollercoaster of emotion. One minute we're smiling a bunch of happy people dancing with excitement (with twirling, if rather bland looking skirts from Costume designer Thomas Charles LeGalley) over swell mozzarella, or singing about the beautiful sunset and the next we're wringing our hands over whether these two will get together and creeping out over that weird obsession Marie has for her brother.
Tony and Rosabella are well developed and we like them and root for them in what is one of the compelling love stories on stage (I'll marry you, Tony -- and please, please, Goodspeed, can you cast him as Tevye in next season's Fiddler??) The other characters are kind of sketched in roughly and the large leaps of what is happening in the story line make us wish someone would revisit this book and fill it out.
The Most Happy Fella plays at Goodspeed's Opera House, 6 Main Street, East Haddam, through Dec. 1. Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 pm, Thursday at 7:30 pm. (with select performances at 2 pm.), Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm (with select performances at 6:30 pm). The Thanksgiving week schedule will be Nov. 25 at 2 and 7:30 pm, Nov. 29 at 2 and 8 pm, Nov. 30 at 3 and 8 pm and Dec. 1 at 2 and 6:30 pm. Tickets: 860-873-8668; goodspeed.org.