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Stage Door Theatre is up to the challenge of 'The Most Happy Fella'

Correspondent

Frank Loesser's "The Most Happy Fella" is a vintage show blending the musical storytelling style of Broadway with certain conventions of opera.

A story of improbable but genuine love and forgiveness, the piece is buoyant, sometimes funny and undeniably moving. It requires top-notch vocal talent, which is precisely what Stage Door Theatre's new production of "Most Happy Fella" has in abundance — or "abbondanza," the title of one of its 30-some songs.

Written in 1956 and set in 1927, Loesser's musical (based on Sidney Howard's multithemed play "They Knew What They Wanted") keeps its focus on the blossoming love between Tony Esposito (Kyle Yampiro), an older Napa Valley grape farmer, and the young San Francisco waitress he dubs Rosabella (Shay Weinberg).

Smitten Tony leaves an amethyst-bedecked tie pin and a sweet mash note on the table after Rosabella serves him, and though she admits to her pal Cleo (Kimberly Abrams) that she doesn't remember what the customer looked like, she's taken with his message, and the two begin writing to each other.

Though the Italian-American bachelor Tony is older and by any measure successful, he sees in the young waitress the possibility of a fuller future, including marriage and many "bambini." So he proposes, and Rosabella agrees to become a mail-order bride.

One hitch: When Rosabella asks Tony for a photo, his insecurities surface because, as his possessive sister Marie (Lisa Franklin) reminds him, he's neither young nor good-looking. So Tony sends Rosabella a picture of his handsome foreman, Joe (Kyle David Pressley), who is about to indulge his wanderlust and take off. Fate takes a hand, though, and both men are there when Rosabella arrives. Though she's furious at the deception, Rosabella agrees to immediately marry Tony after he's gravely injured in an accident on his way to pick her up at the train station. Then, things get really complicated and interesting, as the couple's romance grows but life shockingly tests them.

Stage Door's production works so well in large part because director Andy Rogow has assembled such a winning, talented cast. Collaborating with choreographer Andy Fiacco and musical director David Nagy, who plays the two-piano version of the score with Michael Ursua, Rogow has helped his actors achieve a collection of fine performances.

Yampiro is all an audience could want in a Tony, powerful as he sings a series of emotionally revealing numbers, endearingly sympathetic as his heart soars and shatters. Weinberg, who battled vocal problems at the beginning of the run, has a slightly subdued yet beautiful soprano instrument, infusing such songs as "Somebody, Somewhere," "How Beautiful the Days" and "Please Let Me Tell You" with longing and love.

Pressley's charismatic Joe conveys a different kind of longing in "Joey, Joey, Joey," and he helps turn "How Beautiful the Days" into a shimmering quartet sung with Rosabella, Tony and Marie.

As the comedic couple Cleo and Herman, Abrams and Ellington Berg are gems. Abram's Cleo is the perfect sidekick to Rosabella, funny as she opens the show singing "Ooh! My Feet," joyous as she celebrates a connection with good-natured farmhand Herman on "Big D," truth-telling as she sings of Marie "I Don't Like This Dame." Berg's voice isn't in a league with his powerhouse castmates, but he's an excellent dancer and persuasive as a nice guy who takes way too long to stand up for himself.

Also notable in the large cast are Ardean Lanhuis (who does double duty as the show's lighting designer) as the sensitive Doc; Tommy Paduano, Michael Kreutz and Eduardo Uribe as the operatically gifted trio of cooks at Tony's wedding party; and Franklin as the clinging Marie.

These days, "The Most Happy Fella" presents challenges to all but the most well-funded theater companies. The cast is large, certain parts require voices that can handle operatic singing, and the give-and-take of live music is vital. Happily, Stage Door and Rogow meet those challenges in one of the company's finer productions.

"The Most Happy Fella" runs through Feb. 5 at the Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Road, in Margate. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $38 and $42. To order, call 954-344-7765 or go to StageDoorTheatre.com.

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