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STAGE : Most 'Happy' Again : A slimmed-down revival of a Frank Loesser gem heads to Broadway from Connecticut--via the Doolittle

October 13, 1991|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

When legendary songwriter Frank Loesser's "The Most Happy Fella" opened on Broadway in 1956, some three dozen musicians were in the orchestra pit. When the show's three-record cast album was recorded, more than 100 instruments were said to have played the operatic arias, pop tunes and ballads.

So, when the show was being revived last spring at the small Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., director Gerald Gutierrez naturally worried about reviving the big brassy musical with only 10 or 12 musicians--all that could be squeezed into the pit at the 400-seat theater.

Gutierrez and colleagues did what Loesser himself long wanted to do--cut the sound down without reducing the impact of the story. When the New York critics descended on the Goodspeed in May, they still saw a musical packed with singers and dancers, but accompanied by only two pianos. Their raves rivaled the fanfare the show received 35 years ago.

Now that successful two-piano version is headed for Broadway--but not before the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson presents it at the Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood for 10 weeks starting Thursday.

"The Most Happy Fella," which was Loesser's next big hit after "Guys and Dolls" in 1950, is based on Sidney Howard's Pulitzer Prize winning play, "They Knew What They Wanted." Set in Napa Valley in the 1920s, it chronicles the romance of a 60ish immigrant grape grower and his young mail-order bride, a San Francisco waitress.

Tony Esposito courts waitress Amy--his "Rosabella"--to a score that wraps in Puccini, rousing production numbers like "Big D," barbershop quartet renditions of songs like "Standing on the Corner" and ballads like "Joey, Joey, Joey." "Fella's" assorted love stories, tragedies and celebrations are set to enough musical styles to populate several Broadway shows.

Simpler accompaniment allows the drama to hook together all those songs, Gutierrez says. "There's a big gap between the operatic and musical comedy sounds, but the two-piano (version) homogenizes them," he says. "It forces you to really believe in the story."

"Fella," Loesser once wrote, is "all about LOVE--acknowledged the world over to be a most singable subject and one which no songwriter dares duck for very long if he wants to stay popular and solvent."

Although there was plenty of love in Howard's play, Loesser was originally put off by religious and labor elements he said would be tough to set to song and dance. But when he honed the story down, what he found was "a very warm simple love story, happy ending and all, and dying to be sung and danced."

What better challenge for the man who wrote "The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York"? Over nearly five years, he wrote not just the libretto but more than 30 songs for his "extended musical comedy." With its emphasis on song over spoken dialogue, "The Most Happy Fella" came long before such shows as "Sweeney Todd" and "Les Miserables" popularized operatic musicals.

It was also a challenge for the Goodspeed Opera House, the place that launched "Annie" and has revived many a musical. "We'd been wanting to do ("Fella") for a long time," says Michael Price, the Goodspeed's executive director, "and we finally felt we had a company that could do it."

Enter Gutierrez, who had directed two earlier shows at the Goodspeed, been trained as a musician, and grew up listening to the "Fella" cast album. Thrilled to discover a two-piano arrangement of the show done by Robert Page in the early '60s, the two men rented pianos, got some performers together, and essentially auditioned the score.

Loesser himself had authorized Page's arrangement, recalls Loesser's widow Jo Sullivan, who originated the role of Rosabella on Broadway. "Frank always said he wanted to go to (Greenwich) Village and see it done small," says Sullivan, who serves as artistic associate on this production.

"The rap (the show) takes is that it's dull--well-intentioned but . . . 'heavy furniture'--and it's not," Gutierrez says. "It's funny and deeply touching. And I think you have a bigger shot at getting to what is touching and funny--the heart of it--when you don't have dozens of instruments between you and the piece."

Once the decision was made to do a two-piano production, says the director, other decisions fell into place in terms of trims, choreography and set design. In the opening sequence, for instance, waitress Cleo's song about her sore feet was originally followed by a short ballet before "Rosabella" was introduced. Out it went, Gutierrez explains, because you want to meet the heroine faster.

"You follow the dramatic lines so it's more cinematic," says Gutierrez, whose changes in pacing and focus have reduced "Fella's" playing time by about half an hour. "The audience doesn't have to swim through a symphonic sea to get to the action."

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