Chicago Theatre Review
An Abbondanza of Artistry
The Most Happy Fella – Theo Ubique
It’s so romantic, and it begins when Tony, a single, middle-aged Italian-American immigrant, quietly leaves his amethyst tie pin as a tip for his kind, lovely young waitress. Tony is the affluent owner of one of Napa Valley’s finest vineyards, but for all his fortune and friends, he’s a lonely man. Maria, his bitter, maiden sister, constantly hovers over him, reminding Tony that he’s old and funny-looking and shouldn’t expect much more from life. But Tony is a sweet-natured, optimistic romantic who sees life full of beauty and open to any possibility. When he encounters Amy, whom he calls Rosabella, Tony is instantly smitten.
Tony returns from San Francisco to his vineyard. There he begins writing letters to the pretty, young waitress, but secretly including a photograph of Joe, his handsome, younger foreman, in order to entice the pretty girl. When Rosabella agrees to travel to Napa to become Tony’s mail order bride, she’s naturally a little frightened and shy. There she meets the young man in the photo, and naturally thinks that Joe is her intended husband. However, when she learns the truth Rosabella becomes angry with both men. She marries Tony to spite Joe, but Rosabella can’t suppress her attraction to the younger man.
In a comedic subplot, Cleo, Rosabella’s brassy best friend, and a fellow waitress in the same Frisco eatery, is invited by Tony to visit Napa for a while. He senses the loneliness in his young bride and hopes he can make Rosabella a little happier by surprising her. While at the vineyard, Cleo meets Herman, Tony’s most affable and easygoing worker, as well as a fellow Texas import. The two immediately hit it off and eventually become romantically involved.
This old-fashioned, sentimental 1956 musical comedy, with a beautiful book, score and lyrics by Frank Loesser, isn’t typical of the composer’s other, more familiar works. Loesser, better known for writing “Guys and Dolls” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” adapted Sidney Howard’s 1924 play, “They Knew What They Wanted,” at the suggestion of a friend. Omitting the play’s political and religious themes, Loesser focused on the love story between the older man and a young woman. The playwright said that he saw in the script “a very warm, simple love story, happy ending and all, and dying to be sung and danced.” Breaking away from his usual tin pan alley style of music, Loesser’s three-act musical is much grander in its story and score. Brooks Atkinson, of the New York Times, called the show a “music drama,” going on to say that “it comes as close to opera as the rules of Broadway permit.”
Fred Anzevino, that Jeff Award-winning theatrical genius of Rogers Park, has once again taken another big musical, as he did with “Evita” and “Cats,” and reduced it to its essence. Working closely with his talented assistant director, Courtney Crouse, and his gifted musical director, Jeremy Ramey, at least 30 minutes have been trimmed from the original production. The large cast has been reduced to a mere baker’s dozen, comprised of some of the most masterful actor/singers imaginable. And where does
Anzevino find such extraordinary talent? Once again this imaginative maestro has assembled a cast of some of the most impressive new talent Chicago has to offer.
The cast is led by recent Chicago transplant, William Roberts, as Tony. Operatically trained, Mr. Roberts has performed locally at Light Opera Works, but has mostly sung at opera houses all over the country. What a magnificent instrument he has, and how sensitively Roberts portrays Tony, the middle-aged Italian vineyard master with the big heart, who innocently wishes only to be married. Mr. Roberts is memorable singing the infectious title song, as well as heartfelt ballads, like “Rosabella,” “Old People” and “Mama, Mama.”
Roberts is matched by beautiful Molly Hernandez as Rosabella. This talented vocalist, miraculously just a college sophomore, is as gifted an actress as she is a singer. Together this pair of mismatched lovers make beautiful music with such songs as “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance” and the gorgeous “My Heart is so Full of You.” Molly soars in solos like “The Letter,” “Somebody, Somewhere,” “Warm All Over” and “Aren’t You Glad?” Since at the No Exit Cafe the audience is never far from the action, nary a glance, nor a subtle expression goes unnoticed. In this role, Ms. Hernandez delivers the performance of her life. Later, audiences will recall that they were present when Theo Ubique introduced this captivating new musical star at the beginning of her career.
Ken Singleton makes his auspicious Chicago debut as Joe, the handsome, young vineyard foreman, the man to whom Rosabella becomes attracted, upon arriving in Napa. Along with Joe’s upright, masculine presence, coupled with his ignorance of the difficult situation he’s created, Singleton is wonderful. As a trained singer, Singleton’s sweet baritone croons numbers like “Don’t Cry,” with Rosabella, “How Beautiful the Days,” sung with Tony, Rosabella and Marie, and his exquisite solo, “Joey, Joey, Joey.”
In addition to these three terrific actors, the marvelous Courtney Jones returns to Theo Ubique, where earlier she played Maureen in “Rent.” Here she delights the audience with her quirky, comic portrayal of Cleo. Ms. Jones gets the show off to a humorous start musically bemoaning the pain of being a waitress, in “Ooh! My Feet!” She commiserates with Amy/Rosabella in
“I Know How it Is,” and later she joins Sarah Simmons, so excellent as Tony’s bitter sister Marie, in the humorous, “I Don’t Like This Dame.”
The boyishly handsome Joe Giovannetti, an outstanding musical talent and a gifted comic actor, makes a lovably innocent Herman. His gullible manner and turn-the-other-cheek philosophy of life make him the brunt of every joke, however Herman manages to attract Cleo’s attention. Mr. Giovannetti joins with the men’s ensemble, blending beautifully together as they celebrate the joy of “Standing on the Corner (Watching All the Girls Go By).” Later, Herman and Cleo bond over their common Texan upbringing in the raucous “Big D.” And later,
when Herman finally learns to stand up for himself, he boasts about it with the whimsical, “I Made a Fist.”
The ensemble, musically guided by Jeremy Ramey, is sensational and create such a beautiful sound. Pedestrians walking down Glenwood Avenue probably stop in their tracks when they hear this choir of angelic voices spilling out from the No Exit Cafe. Of particular note are Roy Brown, Erik Dohner and Jonathan Wilson who play, among other roles, the three Italian chefs who cook for the vineyard. Their beautiful renditions of “Abbondanza,” “Sposalizio” and “Benvenuta” are just a few of the melodic highlights of this production. Many of the musical numbers are also enhanced by talented James Beaudry’s imaginative, folksy choreography.
This production is certainly one of the finest that this impressive company has ever presented. And that’s saying a lot, because almost every show they produce is golden. Possibly because of Fred Anzevino’s Italian roots, this musical is resplendent in its classical sound and authentic feel. The intimate venue is beautifully converted into a rustic, wood-hewn series of decks, stairs, pergolas and gazebos, designed by Adam Veness, covered with grapevines and accented with festive lighting, courtesy of James Kolditz. Bill Morey’s beautiful costumes bespeak those innocent Eisenhower years with style and color. In other words, Fred Anzevino’s new production is an abbondanza of heart, talent and artistry that shouldn’t be missed.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 10-May 7 by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 800-595-4849 or by going to www.theo-u.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.