The theater season is always full of surprises – which is what keeps it alive and fresh. And Gloucester Stage is where to go this summer for one of those happy surprises. It’s Frank Loesser’s rarely performed THE MOST HAPPY FELLA (playing through July 17th). It walks like a musical and talks like a musical but it sings like an opera and Gloucester has the voices to pull it off.
Love letters figure center stage in FELLA and just like Cyrano, the author conceals his identity in order to woo fair lady. The similarities end there. Loesser’s story (based on the Sidney Howard theater- and movie script, THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED) plays out as a clash of old and new world values when an immigrant grape grower struggles for his share of happiness.
The Gloucester production plays it two ways at once, as a concert performance (complete with music stands and faux scores) and as a fully staged musical (with choreography and slides of scenery as backdrops). It’s a small quibble, but I could have done without the music stands. I didn’t even mind two keyboards standing in for an orchestra. As soon as you hear the gorgeous singing, you forget all about it.
Director Eric Engel and music director Michael V. Joseph have a couple of knock-your-socks-off performers in Drew Pulver as Tony, the gentleman farmer and in Timothy John Smith as Joe, his foreman and unintended rival. As in grand opera, it’s the arias which give the singers their personality and you simply can’t do better than Pulver’s idealistic, dreamy songs about imagined happiness or Smith’s seductive paean to the beckoning, wandering wind.
Jennifer Ellis is lovely as the object of Tony’s dreams and Kerry Dowling and Bob DeVivo make the comic relief hilarious, especially when DeVivo’s Herman inexplicably finds a fist at the end of his pacifist wrist. Gloucester has a veritable bounty of top Boston performers in the cast: From Eric Hamel to John King to Dawn Tucker, this is an abundant (as in the “Abondanza” celebration in the barn), fully rounded production, one not to be missed.