by Michael J. Vaughn
Some kind of harmonic convergence struck the Peninsula this week, bringing us two rediscovered musicals based on pen-pal romances. Fortunately, both of these love-by-mail schemes--TheatreWorks' "She Loves Me" and Foothill Music Theatre's "The Most Happy Fella"--are prime productions, offering up fine voices, rich comedy and loads of on-stage energy. "She Loves Me" is a reworking of a 1930s Hungarian play by Miklos Laszlo about two workers in a perfume shop who are unwittingly wooing each other through an anonymous "lonely-hearts" letter-writing club. The play had already inspired a 1940 film, "The Shop Around the Corner" (with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan), and a 1949 Hollywood musical, "In the Good Old Summertime" (Judy Garland and Van Johnson). The Broadway version, "She Loves Me," was created by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who would later create "Fiddler on the Roof," and book writer Joe Masteroff, who would go on to do the book for "Cabaret."
The musical opened in 1963 to rave reviews, but ended its run at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in January 1964, possibly a victim of the entertainment drought following the Kennedy assassination. Whatever the case, the musical has always maintained a certain cult status, and made its return to Broadway in 1994 to yet more acclaim and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical Revival.
As for this rendition by TheatreWorks, I doubt if you could find a tighter, more energizing production if you went to the Great White Way itself. Under the direction of Bick Goss and musical director Lita Libaek, this show literally jumps out at you, infusing every moment with light, juicing every musical passage and comic gag for all it's worth.
The play begins in 1930s Budapest, as we meet the workers of Maraczek's Parfumerie outside the shop, alternately dodging the erratic bike-riding of delivery boy Arpad (Patrick Michael Dukeman) and thinking up excuses for taking the day off work and having a picnic. Then Maraczek (George Ward) shows up to open the doors, a bevy of female customers arrives to sample the products, and we're introduced to the vagaries of cosmetics salesmanship through the ingenious "Sounds While Selling," an ensemble piece that takes selected snippets of the shop's conversations and puts them back together in weird arrangements (an example: "I would like to have . . . an eyebrow . . . here, under my chin.").
The routine of the shop is interrupted right away when young Amalia Balash (Mandy Munnell) arrives to request a job, and, to the chagrin of the assistant manager, Georg Nowack (Jack Davis), manages to sell a musical cigarette case and cause Nowack to lose a bet with the shopowner over whether the case could possibly be sold to anyone. Fed by the increasingly tense atmosphere of the shop as they near the holidays (and by Mr. Maraczek's inexplicably growing crankiness), Georg and Amalia cultivate a hostile relationship, even while they speak glowingly to their co-workers about the anonymous lover/correspondent they both refer to as "Dear Friend."
As for highlights, it's hard to know where to begin. Store clerk Sipos's homage to the fine art of brown-nosing, "Perspective," takes full bloom under Patrick Flick's earnest delivery. "I Don't Know His Name" presents Amalia and her girlfriend Ilona (Meg Mackay) in a touching parallel of the woman who falls in love with the inside of a man, and the friend who falls prey to the exterior, followed by Ilona's resounding declaration of independence from her sleazeball suitor, fellow clerk Steven Kodaly (Clark Sterling), in "I Resolve." (As for Kodaly, he gets his own chance for blunt honesty in his determinedly sarcastic, vocally acrobatic signoff, "Grand Knowing You.")
George Ward is, as always, perfect as the shopowner Maraczek (you might remember him as another shopowner, Mushnik, in "Little Shop of Horrors"), and Dukeman is a ball of energy as the delivery boy Arpad, especially in his sales-clerk audition to Maraczek, "Try Me." Throw in the odd cast of characters at the Dear Friends' rendezvous spot, the Cafe Imperiale, and you've got quite a tapestry. The show is capped off with "Twelve Days to Christmas," a crazy split-second choreography of last-minute holiday shopping featuring packages flying through the air into shopping bags and customers running around like pumped-up halfbacks.
As for our lead lovers, they are simply superb. Once you get over Jack Davis's uncanny resemblance to Bob Sagit, he gives Georg the fullness of character necessary to portray his alternately crabby and charming attitudes toward Amalia and Dear Friend. As for Mandy Munnell, she avoids the trap of turning into just another pretty ingenue, lending Amalia an endearing, sometimes frenetic quirkiness, especially in the confused early-morning faceoff of "Where's My Shoe?"
Libaek's orchestra is more powerful than I've ever heard them, especially with Bryan Lanser ripping away on drums. The best performer in the show, however, may be set designer Eric Landisman's spinning parfumerie. One memorable scene features Amalia stepping mid-song from the back room to the shop interior to the street outside while barely changing her place on stage. The only misuse of this carousel effect was at the climax, when the rotation should have been allowed to stop before the show's final secret was revealed; I felt a little cheated at the distraction. An additional mention to Susan Archibald Grote's dashing period costumes, especially Kodaly's slick pinstripe suits and Amalia's beautiful rendezvous dress.
Foothill's "The Most Happy Fella"
Frank Loesser took his 1956 musical, "The Most Happy Fella" from Sidney Howard's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "They Knew What They Wanted," and a made a big success of it on Broadway. That success tends to be overshadowed by two of Loesser's other musicals, "Guys 'n' Dolls" and "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." "The Most Happy Fella" got its due in 1991, though, when it won a Tony for its Broadway revival. It's interesting to note that the main creative difference between Loesser's big smashes and the "lesser" smash of "The Most Happy Fella," is the book; Loesser handled his own book on "Fella," whereas other writers were brought in for the other two. No doubt, Howard's play was good raw material, but the almost opera-like dominance of the singing definitely indicates that a musician is running things, and the story doesn't hang together quite as well as a result.
The story begins in a 1920s San Francisco restaurant, where Rosabella (Shannon McCarthy) discovers a love note left by Tony (Jerry Dixon), an immigrant Italian grape grower from the Napa Valley. He writes that he is looking to get married to someone just like her, and he leaves his amethyst tie pin for a tip. Egged on by her friend Cleo (Jennifer Howell), Rosabella starts writing to Tony, and over the months they develop a rich mutual affection.
The scene cuts to Napa, where we discover that Tony is the most beloved member of this small community, but that he is a little older than Rosabella might suspect. He is very aware of this himself, and, feeling anxious about the difference in their ages, he responds to Rosabella's request for a photo by sending her a picture of his young foreman, Joey (Bill Quinlan), who is due to leave town any day. On the day preceding Tony and Rosabella's wedding, however, Tony discovers that Joey is still in town, and the trouble begins.
Unlike "She Loves Me," which is clearly a comedy fueled by bits of dramatic conflict, "The Most Happy Fella" alternates freely between tragedy and comedy, and the story occasionally gets lost in the mix. The music jumps around between happy hoe-downs like "Big D," in which Cleo arrives on the scene to discover fellow Texan Herman (Hank Lawson), and the foreboding, operatic interludes of "Fresno Beauties" in which Joey and Rosabella wonder aloud in driving monotones about a moment of weakness that may mess up both their lives. Another oddly tragic presence is Tony's sister, Marie (Catherine Sheldon), driven to dark distraction by the idea that Tony's young bride may take away her position as her brother's caretaker.
Some of Loesser's musical devices make for fascinating artistic excursions--a second-act quartet between Tony, Rosabella, Marie and Joey, for instance, that's downright Verdian in its use of simultaneous, contrasting vocal lines to reveal the conflicting motives of the singers. Problem is, a lot of the time this dependence on song to move the plot ends up dragging things out. The second act suffers the most from this.
The success of Foothill's production rests squarely on Jerry Dixon, an Opera San Jose regular who gives us a Tony with enough compassion and integrity to justify his popularity, and enough strength, in both personality and voice, to make the attraction between himself and his young bride a plausible notion. Shannon McCarthy is similarly appealing as Rosabella, though her singing occasionally gets a bit dark and heavy on the vibrato (like Dixon, she also has a background in opera and operetta).
Among the supporting players, it's easy to pick out some favorites: Jennifer Howell is delightful as Cleo (despite her flawed Texas drawl), as is Hank Lawson as her dopey beau Herman; Herman's conquest of his naive optimism is a highlight of the show, as is the great song, "Standin' On the Corner." Bill Quinlan is strong-voiced and amiable as Joey, especially in "Joey, Joey, Joey," his evocation of the eternal call of wanderlust.
Additional comic fun is thrown in by Pasquale, Giuseppa and Ciccio (Richard Feldman, Kendra Holt, and Frank Frye), the hyper-operatic trio of Italian servants who prepare Tony's wedding feast.
Choreographer Tyler Risk and his young, athletic dancers do a good turn, especially with the "Big D" hoe-down, and Joe Ragey's hanging-backdrop sets fly in and out with great ease. Jay Manley's direction is a bit on the slow side, although this may be because of the operatic roadblocks created by Loesser's music.
All in all, Foothill has an excellent production on its hands. The combination of "The Most Happy Fella" and TheatreWorks' "She Loves Me" ought to keep love-and-letters fans happy well into August.
"She Loves Me"
When: Through Aug. 20
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
"The Most Happy Fella"
Who: Foothill Music Theatre
When: Through Aug. 13
Where: Main (Smithwick) Theater, Foothill College, 280 and El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills
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