The opening night of the Indiana University Opera Theater’s production of Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella” was a celebratory evening. It began with a welcome and the announcement of next year’s season from Dean Gwyn Richards, proceeded to a surprise sing along with the orchestra for the Dean’s birthday and ended with a standing ovation for IU faculty member Timothy Noble who appeared as Tony in his final stage role.
“The Most Happy Fella” is set in a California vineyard in the 1920s. In a visit to the city, the old vintner Tony falls for a young waitress, his Rosabella, and starts a courtship by mail. When they exchange pictures, Tony uses a photo of Joey, a handsome young wanderer instead of his own. If this were a flat out comedy, I’d leave you with the phrase “mayhem follows,” but it isn’t, so let’s say “complexities develop.”
Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella” came after the enormous success of “Guys and Dolls.” Never a person to try to imitate himself, Loesser wanted something quite new. Although he resisted calling the show an opera, he did concede that it was “a musical with a lot of music.” The musical is indeed full of music and there are a lot of particularly musical surprises.
As Tony, Tim Noble had a role with plenty of flat out operatic singing that showed off both his artistic skills and his range. Elisabeth Marshall as his Rosabella was a true ingénue, but as we heard in “Somebody Somewhere” in the first scene, an ingénue with considerably more vocal heft and richness than you’ll usually hear in those roles. Her friend and fellow waitress, Cleo, Kelly Glyptis was a solid straight Broadway belter, solo in her eloquent complaint “Ooh! My Feet,” and later with the shy Herman “Mark Van Arsdale” in their energetic tribute to Dallas, “Big D.” Tony’s foreman, Joe the handsome guy whose picture he sends to Rosabella is a nice straight Broadway lead, his paean to the open road “Joey, Joey, Joey” was movingly sung by Jesse Magieri.
The show is also rich in ensembles with a terrific performance of the Four Freshman style “Standing on the Corner,” and a very funny over the top operatic tour de farce, “Benvenuto,” as three chefs try to outdo one another in welcoming Rosabella to the ranch.
Throughout the production of “The Most Happy Fella” there are big dance numbers. Choreographer Joshua Bergasse and the cast have done a great job. There’s plenty of variety, the dances have a folk feel, some nicely done solos and even some bits of group precision. In an unusual approach for the IU Opera Theatre costumes and sets were handled by two different artists. The costumes ranging from ranch work clothes to fifties fancy were designed by Linda Pisano from the IU Department of Theatre and Drama. The sets beginning with an Edward Hopper inspired diner and progressing to ranch scenes that telescoped in and out for more intimate and distant vistas were by guest William Forrester.
Overall stage direction for this very satisfying production was by Vincent Liotta. Guest Constantine Kitsopoulos conducted with a nice feel for the variety of styles. My only complaint was that the drum set overpowers the other colors of the orchestration in the more traditional Broadway numbers.
“The Most Happy Fella” at the IU Opera Theater plays Friday and Saturday. Friday evening Aleksey Bogdanov sings the part of Tony. Saturday night Tim Noble makes his staged role bow in the part
Listen to WFIU’s George Walker’s interview with Timothy Noble.