Some things look so good on paper that success seems a sure thing. Take Encores second show of the season, The Most Happy Fella. Here we have one of the greatest (if not best known) of all theatre scores, and in the cast, three principal performers – Shuler Hensley, Laura Benanti, and Cheyenne Jackson – who are virtually a dream-team. (Trust me – I hang out with the kind of people who for party games compose ideal cast wish lists, and this could absolutely be one for Fella.)
Yet I’ve seen enough super-promising shows that didn’t quite deliver to still keep my fingers crossed as the lights go up.
In this case, happily, I needn’t have worried. Fella carried the night triumphantly. On virtually every level, it was in the top tier of Encores shows – and in terms of touching the heart, it was through the roof.
The credit belongs first and foremost to composer-lyricist Frank Loesser, whose writing is more gorgeously emotional here than in any of his other scores. It is a surprising compendium of styles – opera, operetta, ‘50s pop, and country western all make an appearance; also, a story that sometimes dips into melodrama, and more than once strains credibility. But anyone who complains (as I guess I just did) should be reminded of what Emerson said about foolish consistency. If you can resist the ebullience of “Abbondanza,” or the lush sentimentality of “How Beautiful the Days” – or not feel the strange electricity of “Joey, Joey, Joey” – well, you’re a stronger man than I.
Normally, I’d turn next to the cast – but first, I want to pay special tribute to the Encores orchestra and conductor Rob Berman, who perhaps most of all were the stars of the show. We’ve come to expect a lot of this group, but Fella is a marathon, and the beauty and energy they put into it was simply magical. (I assume it was also Berman’s musical direction that gave every ensemble the kind of precise polish and tuning we almost never get in musical theatre.)
Now to the cast, which included a few happy (and not so happy) surprises. The first is that, having mentioned the excitement generated by the team of Hensley, Benanti and Jackson, for me it was actually the secondary couple – Heidi Blickenstaff as Cleo, and Jay Armstrong Johnson as Herman – who really walked off with it.
Blickenstaff can belt with the best of them, but it’s a soaring, creamy sound, which is an asset in the ensembles. She’s also a stylish comedienne who can be brazenly sexy without resorting to vulgarity. Of course, it helped a lot that the object of her lust was Johnson, who could not have been cuter or more randy and appealing. Their duet, “Big D,” is almost a guaranteed showstopper in anybody’s hands – but here it was a major homerun.
Laura Benanti was a beautiful Rosabella to see and hear. It’s a difficult role vocally, with a high tessitura, and every now and then I thought I detected some strain (I’m glad that she didn’t need to worry about sustaining a long run) – but the voice never lost its shimmering beauty, and she’s a committed, truthful actress.
Acting was also Shuler Hensley’s trump card here – really, I can’t imagine a more emotionally connected, touching Tony. But it’s a genuinely operatic role, and though Hensley has the training and credentials, at least at the performance I saw, his voice was often tonally gray and patchy, with little sense of legato. It made for a frustrating performance – it was wonderful to watch him look at Benanti, but painful to hear him struggle with the musical line in “My Heart Is So Full of You” and other lyrical moments.
Cheyenne Jackson had the opposite problem. His singing was excellent – it’s a leaner, more pop sound than I generally associate with the role, but it works – and, god knows, he’s gorgeous. But for all that, he generated almost no sense of animal magnetism, which is pretty crucial.
I know I’m treading on thin ice here – Jackson is openly gay. But putting aside the messy question of personal identity (and maybe that’s never possible), I see this as basic acting issue. Jackson is a personality actor – he has charm and likeability galore, and an aptitude for light comic banter. But I’m not sure there’s more there. Sometimes, it’s enough – I thought he was terrific in Finian’s Rainbow. But Joey is a complex character – rugged, conflicted, at his core an outsider – and those things don’t seem to be part of Jackson’s skill set.
So there you have it – not a perfect production, perhaps, but a wonderful and treasurable one. “Abbondanza,” as Loesser says.