Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Most Happy Fella
Cinnabar Theater
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's review of Disastrous

Stephen Walsh and Jennifer Mitchell
Photo by Eric Chazankin
My first memory of The Most Happy Fella comes courtesy of "I Love Lucy." Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel are excited to have tickets to The Most Happy Fella, a show that has been "sold out for months." I clearly remember Lucy telling Little Ricky the show is unsuitable for children, and wondered what could have made it so racy. But I never saw the show until this charming production by the reliable Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma. (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were investors in the original production, so the episode was an inspired bit of cross-promotion.)

Frank Loesser wrote the music, lyrics and book (though there is surprisingly little dialogue—almost everything but exposition is sung) some years after his breakthrough with Guys and Dolls The musical was based on based on the play They Knew What They Wanted by Sidney Howard, and the story is delightful, if a bit far-fetched: an older Italian immigrant wine grower from the Napa Valley named Tony falls head over heels in love with a young waitress he sees in a San Francisco restaurant. He leaves behind a jeweled tiepin as a tip—and a note that asks her to correspond with him. She does, but when she asks for a photo, he worries she will find him too ancient to love and sends her instead a picture of the young and handsome foreman on his ranch (something today's online daters will likely relate to!). The plot only becomes more far-fetched when Rosabella (the name Tony calls her, not knowing her real name) arrives at the ranch, learns that the man in the photo is actually Joe and not Tony, but decides to ... well, that's as far as I'll go, to not spoil things.

The majority of the criticisms I have are not with Cinnabar's staging, but with the show itself. Though it's packed with lovely melodies and a couple of songs that became hits ("Standin' On the Corner" and "Big D"), the plot drags a little in act two, and Loesser's lyrics and dialogue often lack the verve and wit needed to lift this show into the first tier of American musical comedy.

That said, Cinnabar has staged a truly delightful production. Wayne Hovey has once again created a beautiful environment in which the terrific cast can cast their spell. A lovely painted backdrop sets the scene of golden California hills and a lush vineyard. At stage left there is a rustic barn, and at right a beautifully rendered craftsman-style cottage. Despite the minor second act doldrums, director Elly Lichtenstein keeps the action moving along briskly and uses her large cast well, creating energetic party scenes as well as tender moments for solos and duets.

Her cast, in return, serve her well, delivering natural, sincere, and powerful performances. Stephen Walsh is wonderful as Tony—his charm fills the room, and we can't help but root for him to win the girl, despite the wide difference in their ages. His voice is big and bold and his phrasing brings out the best of Loesser's gorgeous melodies. As Rosabella, Jennifer Mitchell is both tender and vulnerable, without seeming meek or overly pliant. But if anyone steals the show, it's Michael van Why in the role of Herman, who may in actuality be the "most happy fella," since he always seems to have a smile on his face and a good word to say about everyone. Van Why has a wonderful and easy physicality and a rubber face that brightens the stage every time he's on it.

Though the show itself clearly isn't my favorite, it nonetheless has an undeniable appeal. The beautiful melodies, the May-December romance, and the variety of musical styles combine to create an evening of delights served up by one of the North Bay's most skilled theatrical organizations.

The Most Happy Fella runs through September 25, 2016, at the Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd North, Petaluma. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $35 general in advance, $40 at the door, $25/$30 for those 21 and under. September 10 and 17 shows include wine tasting courtesy of Coppola Wines. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 707-763-8920.

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