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'The Most Happy Fella' review: Laura Benanti striking, but overall it's not so happy

Laura Benanti and Shuler Hensley in

Laura Benanti and Shuler Hensley in "The Most Happy Fella" Photo by Joan Marcus. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

What a weird one this was. Frank Loesser, six years after the swagger and brilliance of "Guys and Dolls," appears to have gone berserk on a style-shopping spree with "The Most Happy Fella."

The 1956 musical, now in a large but largely uninspired concert revival by the New York City Center Encores! series, was always a controversial mix. It's a hit-parade of Tin Pan Alley show tunes, an atsa-spicy-meatball concept of Italian immigrants, plus folk and operatic arias, duets and choruses that divided audiences with an almost ludicrous combination of inconsistent intentions.

Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, perhaps weary from his recent splendid work on "Aladdin," makes no apparent attempt to integrate the styles or mute the idiotic comic relief in respect to the serious romantic conflicts among an aging Italian owner of a Napa Valley vineyard, his mail-order bride and his strapping ranch manager.

Nor does this oddly cast production -- a rarity for Encores! -- distract us with thrilling performances. The big hole in the middle is Shuler Hensley, ordinarily a wonderful singing actor, adrift here as Tony, the landowner.

The role, written for a high baritone and traditionally performed by an opera singer, forces this Broadway bass to strain and get fuzzy. This Tony is tender and sweet, as required. But much is made about his advancing age, which is problematic because Hensley doesn't look any older than Laura Benanti, who uses her customary intelligence and a striking dramatic high voice as Rosabella, the San Francisco waitress he tricks into marrying her. Cheyenne Jackson completes the triangle as the handsome, restless farmhand who poetically hears opportunity calling him by name, "Joey, Joey, Joey."

Heidi Blickenstaff makes a strong wisecracking pal to Rosabella, but it's impossible to believe her love for Herman (Jay Armstrong Johnson, directed to play dimwit). The choreography is peppy and pedestrian, and most popular songs -- "Standing on a Corner," "Big D" -- are so disconnected from the plot they could have been dragged from the back of a drawer.

It is hard to remember this is the same musical that director Gerald Gutierrez revived as a heart-tugging sweetheart of a show in 1992. That chamber version used just two pianos, an arrangement approved by Loesser before he died in 1969. This one has a big, glorious orchestra. That's nice, but not good enough to make the show work.


WHAT "The Most Happy Fella"

WHERE New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., through next Sunday

INFO $30-$140; 212- 581-1212;

BOTTOM LINE Oddly cast, stylistically jarring revival.

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