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Review: 'Most Happy Fella"

April 16, 2009
I’ll admit that expectations played a big part in my experience of Indiana University Opera’s production of Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella” (running through April 18).

Many, many listens to the cast recording of the original 1956 original—plus a long-ago viewing of the TV broadcast of the 1979 revival—convinced me that this was one of Broadway’s greatest scores. Packed with songs ranging from operatic to folksy to then-pop (anyone remember “Standing on the Corner”?) it’s also got an eyebrow-raising conflict in the second act and a trio of core characters with real meat to them.

IU, which usually includes one traditional musical in its operatic season, offers two casts for its production, one led by veteran operatic leading man (and IU prof) Timothy Noble, the other with up-and-comer Aleksey Bogdanov in the title role. I saw the latter, and despite being far too young for the part (something you have to accept before walking in the theater for most IU Opera productions), Bogdanov was in terrific voice as the lonely California vinter whose big heart and low-self esteem lead to complications as he woos a down-on-her-luck waitress.

His Rosabella, Sarah Starling, proved an equally strong singer--glorious, actually. But Rosebella isn't just a stand-and-sing role. It's one of the toughest parts in the musical theater cannon. Her longing—and the desperation of her circumstances—needs to be clear early. Once she arrives at the Napa Valley vineyard, she quickly experiences a roller coaster of emotions—frustrated, charmed, relieved, shattered, angered—that lead her to a very bad choice. After all of that, she needs to fall into an unlikely love—and we need to believe it completely. That didn’t quite happen in the performance I saw.

But the rewards are great anyway, fundamental among them being the opportunity to hear Frank Loesser’s score in all its glory courtesy of the University Orchestra. Nowhere else in the region—short of an occasional special program at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra—can you find the music of musicals given this kind of transcendent treatment.

I’d happily go again this weekend if I weren't already overbooked.

Ah, well, next year there’s “West Side Story.”

(Side note: IU Opera doesn't just do the classics. July 30-Aug. 8, it will be offering the world college premiere--and the first production of any kind in this area--of the recent Broadway musical "The Light in the Piazza.")

Look for reviews of Beef & Boards' "Treasure Island" and the Phoenix Theatre's "References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot" in the upcoming edition of the Indianapolis Business Journal.

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