Perhaps the reason Frank Loesser’s 1956 musical “The Most Happy Fella” isn’t performed more frequently is because it requires extraordinary vocal talent from the full cast, not just a few leads.
Onstage at the Eureka Theater, the intimate 42nd Street Moon production under the direction of Cindy Goldfield boasts a team of singers up not only to the challenges of the complex score, but also to the book that digs deep inside the human psyche. (Loesser took on the ambitious project, based on a 1924 Pulitzer Prize winning play called “They Knew What They Wanted,” after his big hit “Guys and Dolls.”)
Tenor Martin Rojas Dietrich plays the title character Tony, a kindly boss and Italian owner of a Napa Valley vineyard who actually isn’t all that happy. Admittedly not young, not good looking, and not smart, he resorts to trickery in wooing and acquiring a mail-order bride. He sends her a picture not of himself, but of Joe, the handsome winery foreman who’s about to move on from his job.
Dietrich, an operatic vocalist, beautifully makes his layered feelings evident, as does Joe (the equally compelling Noel Anthony), in his moody farewell tune.
Lovely soprano Amanda Johnson enchants as Rosabella, the young impressionable waitress, ready for love. She responds to the mash note Tony Esposito leaves on the menu at the San Francisco eatery where she works, and ultimately goes to Napa, agreeing to marry a man she’s never met.
Complications ensue: Rosabella meets Joe, not Tony, on arrival; Tony has a bad accident that puts him in a wheelchair for weeks; and Tony’s sister Marie (Caroline Altman) isn’t thrilled with the proceedings.
But the proceedings do go ahead, with boisterous, harmony-laden musicality from a trio by Italian chefs (Daniel Olson, Scott Maraj, Tim Wagner); and support from pals.
Nicole Frydman and Robbie Rescigno are comic delight as Cleo and Herman, friends of Tony and Rosabella who strike up a romance of their own. (Herman also harmonizes thrillingly with fellow singers in the show’s most famous tune “Standing on the Corner.”)
The simple set mostly is a backdrop mural picturing Napa’s famed hills and grapes, and the super-competent band (music director Dave Dobrusky on piano, Nick di Scala on woodwinds and Andres David Vera on cello) looks (and sounds) fantastic in a back corner of the cozy stage.
Still, the stars of the show are Loesser’s beautiful, evocative, too-little known songs (there’s not much dialogue in the show), performed with the passion and pride the composer intended.
The Most Happy Fella
Presented by 42nd Street Moon
Where: Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 6 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes May 15
Tickets: $25 to $75
Contact: (415) 355-8207, www.42ndstmoon.org