Even by the characteristically supersized standards of the Encores! series at City Center, where golden age musicals receive weeklong concert-style revivals, its new production of the 1956 operatic musical “The Most Happy Fella” is pretty damn big, sporting a 38-person cast and a 38-member orchestra.
Anyone who remembers the Lincoln Center Theater revival from 20 years ago, which offered just two pianos instead of an orchestra, is sure to appreciate Casey Nicholaw’s highly enjoyable staging.
Penned by songwriter Frank Loesser, who is better remembered for the jazzier and sharper “Guys and Dolls” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” this is one of the most openhearted, gloriously romantic scores ever written.
It begins with Tony (Shuler Hensley), a middle-aged Italian immigrant, falling for a pretty young waitress (Laura Benanti). Too scared to introduce himself, he leaves her his tiepin and writes her a love note, wistfully calling her “Rosabella.”
Touched by his kindness, they exchange letters and she even agrees to marry him. But Tony, scared she will find him unattractive, sends her a photo of his younger foreman Joey (Cheyenne Jackson) instead of his own, leaving her shocked upon arrival at his ranch. Act Two observes how they are able to rekindle their romance despite these difficulties.
The casting of Hensley and Benanti is questionable, as Hensley looks rather young and frail for Tony and Benanti is not young enough for Rosabella, and the characters’ age difference is a central conflict. And while Hensley has a fine voice, it lacks the operatic edge required for the score. Even so, their acting is exquisite throughout.
The rest of the cast is superb, particularly Heidi Blickenstaff and Jay Armstrong Johnson as the secondary romantic couple. They possess that perfect blend of cute and sexy. Cheyenne Jackson also shines as Joey, as does Jessica Molaskey as Tony’s overprotective sister.
If you go:
“The Most Happy Fella” plays through Sunday at City Center. West 55th Street between 7th and 6th Aves., nycitycenter.org.