Monday, October 28, 2013

Music, Music, Music: The Most Happy Fella, Merrily We Roll Along and Baritones Unbound

Marnie Parris & Bill Nolte in The Most Happy Fella

Six years passed between Frank Loesser’s hugely successful Guys and Dolls and his next Broadway show, The Most Happy Fella, and the two projects couldn’t have been more different. Guys and Dolls was an effort to find a musical-comedy equivalent for the quirky idiom of Damon Runyon’s stories, where gamblers and gangsters are interchangeable (and basically benign), wear fedoras and pin-stripe suits, and speak without contractions. Loesser’s score is lyrical, but it’s comprised mostly of comic numbers – solos (“Adelaide’s Lament”) duets (“Sue Me,” “Marry the Man Today”) the title song, call-and-response numbers  (“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and the two Hot Box showgirl tunes), even a counterpoint trio (“Fugue for Tinhorns”). The Most Happy Fella has a lush romantic score, and there’s so much of it that the original cast recording was released in two versions, a single LP of highlights and a complete three-LP set, in the style of opera recordings. Technically the show is an operetta, since it does contain dialogue sections (which were also written by Loesser). And though it may not be up to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess or Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, the two Broadway musicals that are not only extensive enough but also complex enough musically to qualify as operas, it’s extremely ambitious – and surpassingly beautiful. (In fact, the New York City Opera used to keep it in their repertory.) Loesser based it on a 1924 play by Sidney Howard called They Knew What They Wanted – a hit despite that unwieldy title – that starred Richard Bennett and the legendary stage actress Pauline Lord and was filmed three times over the next decade and a half.

The Most Happy Fella, which is currently being revived at the Goodspeed Opera House (and will be the second offering in this season’s Encores! series), is a May-December romance that begins in San Francisco but quickly moves to the Napa Valley. The fella of the title, Tony Esposito (Bill Nolte), is an aging Sicilian grape farmer who lives with his sister Marie (Ann Arvia). He has a successful concern and is universally adored, but he’s lonely. So when he sees a pretty young waitress (Mamie Parris) in a restaurant on a trip to San Francisco, he leaves her his amethyst tie pin as a tip and a marriage proposal scrawled in broken English. She didn’t take any notice of him amid the dinnertime rush, so when they begin a mail courtship and she asks him for a photo of himself, he sends her one of his young, handsome foreman, Joe (Doug Carpenter), instead; Joe is a drifter, about ready to move on, so Tony figures he and the waitress – whom Tony calls Rosabella – will never cross paths. (We don’t hear her real name, Amy, until the end of the play.) She’s lonely, too, and his letters are sweet – it turns out that Joe helped him craft them – so she accepts his proposal. And of course she learns the truth when she arrives. But when Tony breaks his leg in a truck accident en route to picking her up at the depot and begs her to marry him right away, she agrees out of confusion and desperation because she has nowhere else to go. Angry, alienated, she takes temporary comfort in a one-night stand with Joe, who hasn’t moved on quite yet. The first act thus ends in unhappiness. But in act two Rosabella learns to appreciate Joe, who is sensitive and generous, and then, to his astonishment, to love him.

The Most Happy Fella (photo by Diane Sobolewski) 

Goodspeed last staged the musical to great acclaim in 1991, with Loesser’s gorgeous music played on twin pianos. It wound up on Broadway with the same director, Gerald Gutierrez, and the same cast, headed by Spiro Malas and Sophie Hayden, and it was everything you’d want a production of The Most Happy Fella to be. The current one, directed by Rob Ruggiero, stumbles, though it improves in the second half. For the entire first act Ruggiero can’t seem to get the mix of dark and light elements right, so instead of coming across as an operetta with serious themes, it feels strangely like one of those contemporary musicals with a song every five minutes – though you can hardly complain about the songs. This problem diminishes somewhat in act two, but still the show hovers uncomfortably between styles. Michael Schweikardt’s set, a blocky wooden frame with a painted cyclorama behind it, isn’t very attractive – unusual for a Goodspeed show – though Thomas Charles LeGalley’s costumes are lovely (especially Mamie Parris’s), John Lasiter’s lighting is effective, and both the musical direction (by Michael O’Flaherty) and the choreography (by Parker Esse) are up to the company’s standards. There isn’t a lot of dancing, but the big numbers, “Sposalitzio” and “Big D,” are satisfying, and Ruggiero was smart enough to stage “Song of a Summer Night” – a non-dance chorus number – through the house, so the honeyed harmonies come at you from all sides.

Parris plays Rosabella as a hard-boiled dame with a soft center, and she employs her lovely soprano dramatically, giving ballads like “Somebody Somewhere” and “Warm All Over” a naturalistic feel: more Great American Songbook, less operetta. It’s a fine choice, and she gives a heartfelt performance. She makes one slip, I think, playing Rosabella’s acceding to marry Tony at the end of act one out of fury at Joe. (This choice doesn’t make sense.) Nolte has an unhappy habit of popping his eyes, which makes him appear clownish and cute, like a stock player from M-G-M musicals of the thirties (I kept thinking of S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall.) When he doesn’t, he’s quite good, and you can’t quibble with his singing. I liked him far better in the second act, where we see Tony’s capacity for anger – there’s something simmering underneath his duet with Marie, “Young People” – and his sense of irony, a quality that not all performers bring to this role. His response to “Warm All Over,” where Rosabella tries to convince Tony that she has sexual feelings for him, is complicated: his face shifts back and forth between amazement and disbelief stemming from self-doubt.

The Most Happy Fella

The supporting players are more problematic. Arvia isn’t to blame for what goes wrong with the role of Marie, Tony’s sour, lecturing, possessive sister; it’s probably unplayable, and she doesn’t even get any of the good music, so you know Loesser didn’t like her. (This production wisely cuts one of her songs.) But Joe is a good role, and Carpenter’s acting is frankly lousy. He does have a strong baritone voice, but he has a tendency to overenunciate, and if you’ve heard Art Lund’s rendition of “Joey, Joey, Joey” on the original cast album you can’t believe how little Carpenter does with the song. His phrasing is better on “Don’t Cry,” but these songs cry out for more expressive phrasing. The comic couple from “Big D” (i.e., Dallas), Natalie Hill as Rosabella’s friend and fellow waitress Cleo (whom Tony brings out to work for him as company for his wife) and Kevin Vortmann as the eternally upbeat Herman, overplay their scenes. There’s a trick to making Herman, whose self-declaring solo is called “I Like Everybody,” work; the character, who grins while his fellow workers on Tony’s farm make him the butt of their jokes, is always in danger of coming across as the village idiot. Whatever that trick is, Scott Waara hit on it in the last Goodspeed revival but Vortmann doesn’t locate it, so it’s no disappointment that his second other solo, “I Made a Fist,” is omitted. (His first number is a barbershop quartet with Danny Lindgren, Noah Aberlin and Eric Ulloa, the irresistible “Standing on the Corner,” which The Four Lads turned into a hit single.) With those long stick legs, Vortmann can certainly dance; Hill can too, but she’s excessively robust, in the Ann Miller fashion.

When City Opera used to mount The Most Happy Fella, they staged it like an opera and it lost all of its vivacity. The current Goodspeed production errs in the opposite direction: it’s way too musical-comedy. If you listen to either the original cast recording or the recording of the 1992 revival, you can hear the style it needs to achieve.

Merrily We Roll Along

It may be a generalization that the Brits don’t understand how to produce musicals, but in my case it’s a claim backed up by experience. (My last encounter with an English retread of an American musical was Top Hat in the West End; it wasn’t hard to sit through, but it was a little too thick – sort of like Devonshire cream – and the casting of the two leads worked against it.) And it’s borne out by Maria Friedman’s production of Merrily We Roll Along, which was transmitted worldwide on HD last week. This mounting of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical was a critical and popular hit at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, transferred to a popular West End run and won a raft of Olivier Awards, yet it’s simply awful. I’ve reviewed Merrily We Roll Along for Critics at Large before, so I won’t detail the problems with the show here – or the plot, except to say that it’s a backwards journey through the lives of three friends, a composer-lyricist team and a novelist, to show how they began as hopeful innocents and wound up miserable and estranged. It can’t be turned into a good musical (though directors have been trying gamely since the original Broadway version flopped in 1981), but it can be performed well – even brilliantly, as it was in the Encores! series in 2012. The Chocolate Factory production is slick and unpleasantly overpowering. Everything about it is hyped up – the style of the meant-to-be-satiric hip Hollywood and Manhattan parties, the staging of the melodramatic moments, the costumes (by Soutra Gilmour, who also designed the chilly sets), Tim Jackson’s choreography of the big second-act opener, and especially the performances. At times the actors are so bizarrely stylized they almost seem to be automatons.

The show begins in high dudgeon, with a scene (the Hollywood party) where the novelist, Mary Flynn (Jenna Russell), now an acerbic alcoholic who hasn’t written a word in years, makes a big enough scene so that Frank Shepard (Mark Umbers), the gifted composer-turned-movie producer, and his actress wife Gussie Carnegie (Josefina Gabrielle) throw her out. Then, when Frank makes it clear to Gussie that he’s sleeping with the starlet in his new movie – and who, natch, won the role Gussie coveted but was told she was too old for – she throws iodine in the young woman’s eyes. Though it comes straight out of the source material (a 1934 Kaufman & Hart play that doesn’t work either), it’s an idiotic scene – Encores! cut it - that makes you think about all kinds of things that you shouldn’t be thinking about: is the stalet’s career over? does Gussie go to jail for assault? Still, it doesn’t have to be as shrill and campy as a bit in a Douglas Sirk picture, and if you want to suggest that these are human beings, perhaps it shouldn’t be. Russell does one of the worst drunk scenes I’ve ever had to sit through; her model seems to be not real life but Claire Trevor in that big sloshed number in Key Largo. You know, the one that must have won her the Oscar, because basically she took it hostage.

Jenna Russell suggesting Claire Trevor in Key Largo

Russell gets much better after this inauspicious entrance; she has the smart notion to play Mary less as a tragic heroine than as a funny girl who happens to be carrying a torch for the perennially out-of-reach Frank. And as Charley Kringas, Frank’s lifelong best friend and writing partner, Damien Humbley isn’t bad. He does an effective job with “Franklin Shepard Inc.,” in which, driven over the edge by the latest demonstration of Frank’s preference for fortune and a celebrity lifestyle, he unloads on him on a TV talk show and destroys their friendship. Humbley’s problem is that he doesn’t come up with enough ideas for playing this character; his scenes start to repeat themselves. And on the second-act “Good Thing Going,” the show’s best song, he goes oddly blank and delivers it (with Frank at the piano) prettily but without feeling.

Those are the actors I didn’t want to throw mud pies at. Umbers plays Frank as an insufferable arriviste in the first act, and as a nervous hick in the second; there’s no clue to suggest how he turned from the latter into the former, and both halves of the performances are hopelessly phony. Gabrielle overstates almost every one of her scenes – she calms down somewhat for the one where she tries to convince Frank that she should leave her producer husband Joe (Glyn Kerslake) for him – and registers as a heartless man eater who deserves what she gets when he strays. Her acting is the dramatic equivalent of belting, and when she sings, she belts for real. Kerslake flails around trying to be convincing as a New York Jew. The weirdest performance is Clare Foster’s as Beth, Frank’s first wife, who divorces him for cheating on her with Gussie (though the script is so wobbly that it has her asking Frank if he slept with Gussie during the divorce trial). Foster’s southern-bombshell Beth isn’t remotely human. During her big song, “Not a Day Goes By,” she twists her face around in fearful contortions. Even seeing her on screen, I wanted to hide under my seat.

Merrily We Roll Along

Traditionally productions of this musical have young casts who shed their age make-up as the play goes on. (The characters are forty-ish when the narrative begins.) Friedman decided to cast actors who are the right age for the opening scenes and ask them to strip off years as they move backward in time – and that’s a much trickier proposition. Umbers lightens his voice in the second act and goes for a higher vocal placement; it’s a game try, but I didn’t buy it. And when Humbley shows up in the final scene, on the rooftop of the apartment building they all live in when they’re in their early twenties, he looks twice the age his character is supposed to be.

Fathom Events, which produced the HD transcription of Merrily We Roll Along, shares with NT Live and the Met Opera HD series the unfortunate habit of showing trailers – inserted into backstage “extras” – before the screening of the show we’re about to see. Along with many other theatre and opera lovers, I’m grateful to these companies for making live theatrical events available worldwide, but I don’t get this part – unlike, say, a TV show, a production we’ve already paid twenty or twenty-five bucks to watch doesn’t need to tease us with excerpts. The “making of” documentary that preceded Merrily We Roll Along was nearly half an hour long and it probably contained a solid fifteen minutes of the musical. Moreover, the interviews that padded it out consisted of interminable platitudes about performance chemistry and getting love from the audience that had me muttering obscenities under my breath. I’m sure these actors are in earnest, and after all they’re not paid to chatter about their performances. But can’t a night out at the theatre be free from the kind of crap I skip late-night talk shows to avoid?

Baritones Unbound

Marc Kudisch, Jeff Matsey, Ben Davis and pianist Timothy Splain (also the musical director) are touring their tribute to the baritone voice, Baritones Unbound: Celebrating the UnCommon Voice of the Common Man; I caught it in Boston a couple of weeks ago in the Arts Emerson series. The three men have superlative voices, but the program put me in a foul mood. Not the first act, in which the text (by Kudisch, Mattsey, Splain and Merwin Foard) traces the movement from the tenor to the baritone in opera and illustrates it with arias from The Magic Flute, Rigoletto, Tannhäuser and I Pagliacci. The narration is cutesy and bends over backwards to show us that the baritones up on stage are just folks, but it’s interesting and informative. Then it carries that history into the American musical theatre, with a beautiful rendition of “One Alone” from Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song by Mattsey, “Ol’ Man River” from Jerome Kern’s Show Boat (performed as a trio), and Davis skillfully demonstrating the dramatic shape of the obscure “Lonely Room” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! But the second act is smug, self-indulgent and pandering, not to mention unpersuasive. In the setting of a “man cave” decorated with pin-ups of American baritones, the three performers swig beer and hi-five each other to prove that baritones are real men’s men. (Presumably the corollary is that tenors are effeminate.) It’s obnoxious.

There are a few compensations in act two: Davis performing Cole Porter’s “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” from Kiss Me, Kate, Mattsey on “White Christmas” (in tribute to Bing Crosby), a duet in which Kudisch sings “Now or Never” and Mattsey answers with its Italian pop source, “O Sole Mio,” and a Sondheim medley. (“Pretty Women” picked up my spirits.) But though he gives it the old college try, Davis can’t get Sinatra’s phrasing on “Night and Day” – which is what he’s going for – and it’s a little embarrassing to hear Kudisch struggle to boogie like Elvis on “That’s All Right.” And most of the musical-theatre selections aren’t exactly in the Sondheim category. They veer toward the inspirational and the self-actualizing: “The Impossible Dream” (one of three songs from Man of La Mancha, which some of us might say are three too many) and big, phony vocal statements from Les Misérables, Ragtime and La Cage aux Folles. The singers protest that these are among the few tunes written for baritones since the golden age of musicals passed, but that’s only true if you restrict your listening to the shows that did boffo business at the box office. A little research might have turned up some beauties in a range of moods: “How Glory Goes” from Floyd Collins (maybe the best song written for the American musical theatre in the last twenty years), “Song of Solitude” from My Life with Albertine, “The Microphone” from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, “Jonas’s Soliloquy” from Leap of Faith, and all of the songs performed by the main male character, Eddie, in Dogfight.

Baritones Unbound

After “The Impossible Dream,” Splain shifts from accompanist (a task he performs admirably) to singer to perform the encore, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” and the three baritones get the audience to sing and clap along. Is that really how Kudisch and company want to end their show, by pretending we’re all in a karaoke bar? On the way out of the theatre, I kept my head down.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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