‘The Most Happy Fella’ at The Catholic University

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Be ready for a big production when you see The Most Happy Fella at The Catholic University of America’s Hartke Theatre. A 27-piece orchestra, lavish staging, more than 30 actors, gorgeous singing, and delightful dance numbers are part of a three act show that runs close to 3 hours. The show has a little dialogue and a lot of music, some of which is in the style of show tunes and some distinctly more operatic. All of it is sung beautifully and when sound levels were adjusted after the first act, the audience was treated to standout performances.

A story of a mail-order bride set in 1927 may seem out of date, but there are similarities to modern searching-for-love options, such as online dating. Both serve as means for singles to find someone who fill their perceived need for an intimate life partner. Frank Loesser, who also composed the musical Guys and Dolls, sets the majority of the story in a Napa Valley winery owned by sweet, but aging, Tony Esposito.

“Happy To Make Your Aquaintance” was my favorite romantic song by the leads, Emma Nadine Onasch as Rosabella and Gustavo Ahualli as Tony. The less operatic delivery of this piece, as they light-heartedly corrected each other, provided the first time I saw reasons why Rosabella would start to fall in love with Tony. Onasch delivers a beautiful “Somebody Somewhere” and Ahualli’s “Mamma, Mamma/Rosabella” is also a gorgeous song and both numbers reflect what they each hope for from love.

Emma Onasch (Rosabella) and Gustavo Ahualli (Tony). Photo by Daniel Weaver.
Emma Onasch (Rosabella) and Gustavo Ahualli (Tony). Photo by Daniel Weaver.

What I missed was the building up of the love that the story is trying to tell. This production doesn’t show well enough the emotional shift behind Rosabella’s passion for a former love and the claim that she loves Tony and his kindness. Ahuelli’s Tony is too embarrassed at being old and not smart, and at having sent a photograph of someone else and claiming it was him. He is too constricted (physically and emotionally) to his wheelchair and then a cane to allow himself to connect emotionally with his new bride. Prior to her declaring she loved him, I didn’t see why she should.

The vocal leads, who generally sing music that is operatic, also include Drew Stairs as Joe (who delivers a passionate “Joey, Joey, Joey”), Tony’s charming foreman, and Katie Rey Bogdan, who fieplays Tony’s controlling sister.

Harrison Smith (Herman) and Mackenzie Newbury (Cleo). Photo by Daniel Weaver.
Harrison Smith (Herman) and Mackenzie Newbury (Cleo). Photo by Daniel Weaver.

Most of the less operatic comic numbers, which are priceless, go to Cleo (Mackenzie Newbury) who is Rosabella’s best friend from her past waitressing life, and Herman (Harrison Smith),  who works for Tony. Newbury is great in “Ooh, my Feet” and “I Don’t Like This Dame,” while Smith’s “I Like Everybody” and “I Made a Fist” showed his comic chops. Their duet, “The Big D” is a show-stopping number and Newbury and Smith both bring compelling acting to their songs.

Pauline Grossman’s choreography was stylish and sharp, funny and evocative. It reveals the subtext of the characters and is endlessly charming. The performance of “Abondanza,” in which a fabulous trio of chefs, sing and dance prior to the wedding feast, was appropriately a crowd favorite. Kenneth Lautz, Bobby Cook Gallagher, and especially Marc Pavan, as Giuseppe, were fantastic. Larger crowd dances, such as in the “Vineyards” or the “Hoedown” fill the stage with groupings dancing inventively, portraying the youthful joys of the moment. While it had simpler choreography, “Standing on the Corner” allowed a terrific male quartet, led by Harrison Smith’s hapless Herman, to strut for the ladies they saw and reveal how crestfallen they were when their posing was fruitless.

Marc Pavan, Kenneth Lautz, aand Bobby Cook Gallagher. Photo by Daniel Weaver.
Marc Pavan, Bobby Cook Gallagher, and Kenneth Lautz. Photo by Daniel Weaver.

Set Designer Katherine Wujcik and Production Manager/Lighting Designer Jonathan A. Weinberg offered some gorgeous spectacle. Among my favorite moments were hanging lights in the wine cellars as Rosabella’s welcome feast was prepared, as well as a starscape-lit backdrop. Set changes flew by and sometimes were finished well before the orchestra, masterfully directed by N. Thomas Pedersen, finished the interlude meant to cover the change. One set change puzzled me as I did not understanding the purpose of a generator prop piece rolled onto stage, introduced, then rolled off.

Costumes by Eleanor Dicks were lovely, setting the period of 1927 believably. Character traits came through clearly because of the subtle choices made. I loved the period hats, Tony’s neckerchief and Cleo’s cowgirl boots. Details make the difference and many of the detailed choices in this production are right on.

Running Time: About three hours, including two intermissions.

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The Most Happy Fella plays tonight at 7:30 PM and tomorrow at 2 PM at the Catholic University of America’s Hartke Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the box office or online.

LINKS:
Meet the Cast of ‘The Most Happy Fella’ at The Catholic University of America: Part 1: Mackenzie Newbury.

Meet the Cast of ‘The Most Happy Fella’ at The Catholic University of America: Part 2: Emma Nadine Onasch.

Meet the Cast of ‘The Most Happy Fella’ at The Catholic University of America: Part 3: Drew Stairs.

Meet the Cast of ‘The Most Happy Fella’ at The Catholic University of America: Part 4: Harrison Smith (Coming).

‘The Most Happy Fella’ Plays This Friday through Sunday 10/23-25 at Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre.