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First Nighter: Encores! Most Happy Fella Mostly Happy

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Perhaps more than any of his Broadway songwriting peers Frank Loesser disliked repeating himself. When he produced book, music and lyrics for The Most Happy Fella in 1956, now this week's Encores! series entry at City Center, he decided to go operatic. Not all the way, but more than he ever had before -- "My Time of Day" from Guys and Dolls, notwithstanding.

The score overflows with melodies that sound as if they could be sailing across the Metropolitan Opera footlights, songs like "Somebody Somewhere," "Warm All Over," "Joey, Joey, Joey," "My Heart is So Full of You" and the "How Beautiful the Days" quartet. At the same time, Loesser didn't forsake his ebullient show-tune past. He included "Ooh! My Feet!" "Big D" and "Standing on the Corner," which was a Top 10 hit when The Four Lads recorded and released it on the Columbia label.

(They were Columbia contractees, and Columbia released the original cast album. Maybe it's now forgotten that having label artists cut songs from signed shows was the policy then.)

The Loesser numbers tumble out so profusely that a criticism could be made about them so far from what might be said of scores written today that it's laughable: There are too many -- with the result that they begin to render Loesser's libretto somewhat diffuse.

Okay, okay, nobody should be complaining about such a predicament at a time when there are new musicals cluttering the Main Stem with scores woefully deficient in songwriting standards -- and I use "standards" in two senses of the word. So I'm not really complaining. I was glad to hear Loesser's Most Happy Fella again and sung so well by top-notch players, with one particularly notable exception and one minor exception.

For those who've either forgotten or never knew, Loesser adapted his work from Sydney Howard's 1924 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, They Knew What They Wanted. In this version 60-year-old Napa Valley vintner Tony (Shuler Hensley) falls for a young San Francisco waitress he calls Rosabella (Laura Benanti). When he's back home and mailing mash notes to her, he sends a photograph of his young and handsome foreman Joe (Cheyenne Jackson) so she'll agree to be his mail-order bride.

When she arrives, the inevitable problems arise. Sometimes they're soothed by Rosabella's visiting friend Cleo (Heidi Blickenstaff), who falls for ever-smiling local Herman (Jay Armstrong Johnson). Sometimes they're complicated by Tony's jealous spinster sister Marie (Jessica Molaskey). But despite her initial disappointment that Tony isn't Joe, Rosabella -- whose actual name isn't immediately revealed -- slowly falls for the older man as a plot line unfolds in which Loesser softens Howard's take on the '20s politics roiling the atmosphere.

What I'm saying is that while Loesser's book mars the overall effect -- and mitigates against a reviewer's completely favorable response -- his music buoys the property time and again. For instance, to hear "Standing on the Corner" delivered to cheerful perfection by Johnson, Ryan Bauer-Walsh, Ward Billeisen and Arlo Hill and then followed by Jackson's "Joey, Joey, Joey" is to go slap-happy with the embarrassment of riches.

To my way of thinking, Jackson might have mined more of Joe's expressed restlessness, his compulsion to have all he wants of the ladies on other neighborhoods. It's a minor drawback, but again I'm not complaining.

Laura Benanti, who has yet to demonstrate from a local stage that she can do any wrong, shows off a pure soprano she's previously hidden. She makes glowing impressions of Rosabella's arias. Blickenstaff opens the proceedings with "Ooh! My Feet!" and it's all pizzazz. She builds on her zing in the second act when she and the equally scene-stealing Johnson front the "Big D" production number. Another one showing off a voice she usually keeps under wraps--certainly when performing with hubby John Pizzarelli in their November Café Carlyle turn--is Molaskey as Marie.

This gets us to Hensley as Tony. In the first act of the performance I saw and heard, he ran into serious vocal obstacles. Although he acted Tony with the required rough-hewn charm--the company acting was fine across the board--he couldn't muster the volume to maximize Loesser's house-filling melodies. Matters improved in the second act, when his and Rosabella's passions flare, but if the title's supposedly most happy fella isn't the most he can be all in categories, something's missing from the whole outing.

Hardly by the way, conductor Rob Berman has 38 -- count 'em, 38 -- musicians on stage to get the billowing orchestral sound required for the enterprise. (Yes, I remember that the 1992 revival did nicely with only two pianos.) The string section alone has 22 players. Not bad.

And a nod held for several seconds director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw's way. It's barely two weeks since he opened Disney's lavish Aladdin 13 blocks south, and here he is with another large-cast production -- during which no one carries the script in a binder as used to be the Encores! series norm. Has the guy slept in the past month? If he hasn't, he's still in good form with a Most Happy Fella that's in good enough form to reward fans with an acceptable look and listen.