Frown lines

The Most Happy Fella

Book, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Directed by Cara Reichel
Gallery Players
199 14th Street, Brooklyn (718-595-0547)
Equity showcase (closes Sept. 29)
Review by Doug DeVita

Legend has it that Frank Loesser hung a sign backstage at the Imperial Theatre during the original run of his musical The Most Happy Fella reminding his singers, "Loud is good."

If loud singing were the only criterion for a successful performance of Loesser's ambitious work, then the Gallery Players production would have to count as a smash, must-see revival. But it is probably safe to assume that perfect pitch, clean attacks, and precise co-ordination between performer and musicians were also a part of Loesser's requirements, along with sensitive direction, imaginative choreography, and smart performances -- none of which were readily apparent in the surprisingly amateurish production that opened Gallery's 35th season.

The music, which often approaches grand opera in its emotional breadth, was particularly poorly served here by Michael Smith's slipshod musical direction. Pitches were consistently off, coming in just above or just below key; the principals were noticeably straining to reach the high notes (and there are many); and the harmonic singing was disastrous, at times giving the gorgeously melodic score a dissonance that was not intended by its creator. Cara Reichel's staging exacerbated the situation, staging frequently leaving the singers with their backs to the conductor or squeezed into dark corners, unable to pick up important visual musical cues. Only one choral number, the achingly beautiful "Song of a Summer Night," sounded as if it had been rehearsed and performed with any kind of fidelity to its needs, and even there, Reichel's indifference to detail was telling -- great pains were made to set up a couple in the chorus as husband and wife, and then in this number, an ode to the joys of marital love, the "husband" was singing to a different chorine while his "wife" was singing to a different chorus boy. Sloppy, and needlessly so.

Other directorial misfires included campy, overblown performances from a trio of supporting players; an overtly vulgar sexual tone to scenes that should have been either romantically funny or heartbreakingly tense; and long, drawn-out scene changes that stopped the show dead in its tracks. (Scott Aronow's unit set was another exasperating misfire -- many pieces deemed essential to each setup defeated the purpose of a unit set.) Further indifference to the abundance of opportunity this show offers was evidenced by Michael D. Pilon's anemic choreography, which relied on endless variations of the same three steps, all of the yee-haw hoedown variety that ignored the rich possibilities suggested by the dance music. (Tarantella, anyone? Charleston, maybe?)

In the lead role of the aging Napa Valley vintner Tony Esposito, Larry Brustofski was a tad younger and a tad more virile than usual for this role, but his self-indulgent ACTING and epic struggles with the score undermined any sympathy the role might engender. As Rosabella, his mail-order bride, Jacquelyn Baker was not a typical ingénue, and may one day be a sensational choice for this role. But without a firm guiding hand her idiosyncratic take on the part remained an intriguing if unrealized blueprint of something better yet to come. Jason Mills brought pop-singer smoothness to the role of Tony's foreman, the brooding, restless Joey. His rendition of "Don't Cry" was fairly well sung, but its dramatic impact was nullified by the odd decision not to end the first act at that point, as written, but to continue the show for another 20 minutes and end after a lovely but dramatically soft number, "How Beautiful the Days."

Abby Smith's costumes, although colorful, were a mix of every farmhand cliché and every period but the one specified (late 1920s.) There were some technical glitches in Mike Berelson's lighting, but there were so many dark spots on the stage, and so many scenes were played with the actors virtually invisible, that it was hard to tell what was just a glitch and what was just plain bad design.

What made this show doubly disappointing is Gallery's history of excellence. In the past, even when firing with only half of their boilers lighted, they've brought a modicum of professionalism to the proceedings. The talent assembled is usually of professional caliber and production values are generally high. This production however, raised the question, "Did anyone even look at the basic requirements of this show before they chose to produce it, or for that matter during casting and rehearsals?" Apparently not this time. But it was loud.

(Also featuring Jason Ackerman, Lauren Allison, David Scott Baker, Ann Bonner, Margaret Cross, Sal Delmonte, Christopher Gleason, Jeremiah Griffin, Makie Hirakawa, Greg Horton, Rebecca Johnson, Natalie Jones, Roxann Kraemer, Michael Munoz, Tommy Vance, Laura Beth Wells, Zach Wobensmith, and Pamela Woon.)

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 0
Musical Direction: 0
Performance: 1
Sets: 0
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 0

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Copyright 2002 Doug DeVita