It’s not entirely fair to compare Skylark Opera Theatre’s “The Most Happy Fella” — which opened over the weekend at the Historic Mounds Theatre in St. Paul — with the Guthrie Theater’s smashing “Guys and Dolls” from the summer. While both are Golden Age musicals by Frank Loesser, the Guthrie’s big-budget production had a full orchestra, a bona fide Broadway star in veteran performer Kirsten Wyatt as the endlessly delightful Miss Adelaide and an overall grandeur that arrested the imagination.
Skylark has two pianos, some handheld candles and sprinkled confetti. And the company deploys an ensemble of a dozen singers for a show that’s usually performed with 30-plus.
But don’t sleep on this nimble outfit or question what this throwback 1956 musical has to say to us today (not a whole lot). What Skylark lacks in sets and design, it makes up for with singing talent and charm.
The cast of “Fella” is headlined by Sarah Lawrence, a gorgeous Duluth-based soprano who played Christine Daaé in “The Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway and on a national tour back in the aughts. She gives Rosabella, the beautiful young waitress who is an ugly old immigrant’s dream bride, a roller coaster of emotions. We feel the vulnerability, confusion and sinking dread of a young lady who messes up on her wedding night. And her duets with Bill Marshall’s Tony — “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance” and “Like a Woman Loves a Man” — are loaded with subtext.
Lawrence sings expressively and with keen emotion in a company that evinces a lot of vocal color. For his part, Marshall invests his semiliterate Italian immigrant with phlegmatic kindness. The pair, separated by age, culture and experience, are supposed to be ill-fitting but the two have pretty good chemistry and look passable as a couple.
Director Bob Neu has pared the score of “Fella” considerably. Three acts have been compressed to two and some minor characters, such as Pasquale, Giuseppe and Ciccio, have vanished into thin air. Neu also has eliminated music for some dance scenes (Jennifer Eckes crafted the little bits of frolicsome choreography there is in this “Fella”).
Surprisingly, you don’t really miss those cuts.
Accompanied by nimble pianists Carson Rose Schneider and Paul Kovacovic, the strong ensemble has sweet performances by Phinehas Bynum as sunshiny Herman and Laurel Armstrong as Cleo. These two Texans meeting away from home gives the show a fairy tale couple that contrasts with the “it’s complicated” situation of Tony and Rosabella. The Cleo and Herman duets, including “I Like Everybody,” are pure delights.
The cast also includes KrisAnne Weiss as Marie, Tony’s caregiving sister, and Justin Spenner as happy-go-lucky foreman Joe. Together, this ensemble helps to make a show that is decidedly low-budget not cut-rate.