Monday, July 11, 2011

More (and more) of Loesser

Drew Pulver with (L to R): TS Burnham & Zachary Magee; Back: Haley Sullivan & Mark Turner.

Right now Gloucester Stage is on a roll. They just closed an impeccable production of Alan Ayckbourn's Living Together (which had local critics hoping they'd soon pull together the entire Norman Conquests); now they've followed that success with a most happy production of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella (playing through July 17) - a show so strong, in fact, that it single-handedly puts Gloucester Stage on the map as a producer of large-scale musicals.

Not that this North Shore mainstay hasn't tried its hand at musicals before - but they've usually been chamber shows, like Marry Me a Little or You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Loesser's Most Happy Fella is a different beast entirely - and a huge beast, too: it features some 29 different songs, so many that some have described it as "through-sung" (it's not quite) or claimed that it was actually a kind of opera, like Sweeney Todd (again, not quite).

What it is, Loesser once said, is simply "a musical with music." A whole lotta music. Indeed, you could cut half the songs in Fella and still have an enviable score for a standard Broadway show (with encores). It's like a cornucopia of melody; music just seems to pour out of it. True, Fella doesn't boast any timeless standards - those rare numbers in which melody and lyric fuse into mirrored perfection - but it comes close to that gold standard repeatedly, with showstoppers like "Standing on the Corner," "Joey, Joey, Joey," and "Big D." Besides, just trust me - even lesser Loesser is better than anything heard on Broadway in the past fifteen years (at least). 

Of course like many local companies, Gloucester's stage lacks an orchestra pit - a major gap in mounting a musical! - but director Eric C. Engel has dodged this seeming show-stopper by utilizing a version of the score for two pianos (one that was even blessed by Loesser).  This works better than you might think - although alas, here they're both electronic keyboards, not "real" pianos - so inevitably, sometimes they go plinkety-plink.  Still, much of the beauty of the score comes through.  And Engel has pulled together a sterling vocal cast to sing it, including local lights Timothy John Smith, Jennifer Ellis, and Kerry A. Dowling, as well as New Jersey native Drew Pulver.  (The vocal prowess extends throughout the cast, which includes Andrew McLeavey, Dawn Tucker, Bob DeVivo, John F. King, and Eric Hamel - and thanks to piano accompaniment, nobody needs to be amplified, another plus.)

Perhaps keying off the distillation of the instrumental arrangements, Engel has poised the show somewhere between a "concert" and "full" staging; backed by effective projections, the cast sometimes sings from behind music stands, but just as often acts out (and even dances) much of the show. Some critics have deplored this, but I thought it worked well enough, and sometimes even charmed; Engel manages the transitions from one mode to another fluidly (those music stands double as all kinds of props), and the streamlined quality of the production matched the simplicity Loesser aimed for in his story and kept the focus on the score, where it belonged.  Indeed, sometimes I felt I could have done with less staging, or perhaps less dancing - Engel seemingly couldn't afford any featured professional dancers, and while choreographers can sometimes conjure a graceful simplicity with non-dancers (the film of The Sound of Music is the most famous example of this), I'm afraid choreographer David Connolly manages to keep anyone from looking bad, but doesn't quite pull off that "subtle grace" trick.  It seems dancing remains the Achilles' heel of local musical production.

The good news, however, is that most of this sterling vocal cast can act as well as sing.  And they need those acting chops, because Loesser's story is a curious one that flirts with tragedy as well as comedy. It's the tale of Tony, an aging California vinter (Drew Pulver) so taken with lovely young waitress Rosabella (Jennifer Ellis, both at left) that he pitches woo through a series of love letters (attached to a photograph of one of his handsome farmhands!).  When Rosabella arrives, smitten, at his vineyard for their wedding, she inevitably discovers his deception, and of course recoils; but a sudden accident leaves Tony clinging to life, and under pressure Rosabella agrees to take his hand in marriage. 

At this point Loesser cues up a classic triangle - for that handsome farmhand is still hanging around, and soon Rosabella finds herself married to a man she is slowly growing to love (for Tony survives the accident), while carrying the child of another man whom she turned to in a moment of weakness.  This surprisingly adult situation is never quite spelled out explicitly, of course - it's conveyed in that familiar, slightly-oblique manner in which pop culture of the 40's and 50's dealt with such themes.  Still,  the conflicts and mutual moral failures are all clear enough - and a slight distance from explicitness these days feels like a sophisticated balm, to be honest.

That same honesty requires me, however, to confess that Loesser doesn't handle well the climax(es) of his melodrama - the book of Most Happy Fella (which he wrote along with all the words and music), after holding us for most of its length, collapses at its finish.  But by then you don't really care, because the gorgeous hits have kept on coming, and in a wild variety of styles (one reason this show isn't an "opera" is that the Verdi and Puccini - whom Loesser channels for his more rapturous flights - really count as just one more genre he's working in).

If I were going to get really picky, I'd also point out that Pulver's baritone, so lustrous at its deep end, sounds stretched at its top, and Ellis sometimes thins out a bit, too.  Both are generally delightful, however - Pulver in particular all but sparkles with a rough masculine sweetness that seems just right for Loesser.  And I have to say Timothy John Smith is in peak form - his rendition of "Joey, Joey, Joey" (at right) sends chills down your spine.  Meanwhile the hearty Kerry A. Dowling gets to stretch out in a role that's all but tailored to her - sometimes, in fact, you feel she's about to walk off with the whole damn show.  (I was likewise charmed by Bob DeVivo's bright-eyed take on her pacifist sweetheart.)  I was only disappointed in Dawn Tucker's turn as Tony's scheming sister, Marie - Tucker has a sweet swet of pipes but seemed to be hanging back from the darker side of the role.  But so what if the show has a flaw here and there - I have to say that it still made me a most happy fella indeed.

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