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For their first production of the season, the Gallery Players have set themselves a huge undertaking: Frank Loesser’s "The Most Happy Fella."

When the musical opened at the Imperial Theatre in 1956, it ran for 678 performances and was immediately hailed for the scope, breadth and originality of its score.

At a time when most musicals used a framework of considerable dialogue to support a score of perhaps a dozen songs, Loesser’s work had almost operatic proportions: almost three-fourths of the play is set to music.

However, the play is noteworthy not only for the quantity but also for the variety of the music. "The Most Happy Fella" contains arias, recitative, duets, choral music, instrumental interludes, folk music and a good deal of parodies on all these forms. Much of the music is accompanied by spirited and complicated ensemble dances.

If all this didn’t place enough demands on the actors, there are also several roles that call for a believable and sustained Italian accent.

The Gallery Players have not only risen to the challenge.

They have triumphed.

Director Cara Reichel, supported by choreographer Michael Pilon, musical director Michael Smith and costume designer Abby Smith, has kept this weighty production joyously light. It jumps and bubbles, and swirls with color.

The plot revolves around the misadventures of Tony (Larry Brustofski), a Napa Valley vintner who falls in love with a waitress, whom he calls Rosabella (Jacquelyn Baker), after she serves him in a San Francisco restaurant. Following a heady correspondence, Tony proposes to Rosabella by mail, and sends her a picture - not of his aging self, but of his handsome, young ranch hand, Joe (Jason Mills).

Brustofski is a warm and humble Tony. His personality permeates the play with goodness. His heart is as expansive as his powerful voice. His Italian accent only occasionally betrays him.

Baker manages to appear fresh but not quite pure at the same time. She may have been around, but in her own way she too has kept the faith. Her powerful soprano presides over some of the most tender songs.

The play also has a subplot that involves Rosabella’s fellow-waitress, Cleo (Laura Beth Wells) and the object of her affections, the clueless Herman (Christopher Gleason).

Wells and Gleason engage in the same kind of down-home, good-fun humor that made the Carol Burnett show so hilarious. Wells, who opens the show with "My Feet!," is particularly effective at setting the tone of suffering with spirit.

There are some lovely love scenes (Tony and Rosabella’s duet "My Heart Is So Full of You" and Rosabella’s "Please Let Me Tell You") interspersed with rollicking ensemble song and dance ("Big D" and "Fresno Beauties").

Most impressive, are David Scott Baker, Jeremiah Griffin and Zach Wobensmith as the three Italian chefs whose "Abbondanza" takes a Sesame Street style look at the art of the opera and the art of cooking.

If there are any problems with "The Most Happy Fella," they are for the most part Loesser’s. Of the 30 songs in the musical, not all do much to advance the plot, and a few are not particularly interesting or melodic. Sometimes it appears Loesser was at a loss what to do musically and loathe to return to dialogue.

The play has only three settings: a restaurant in San Francisco, Main Street in Napa and Tony’s ranch. Scenic designer Scott Aronow has correctly re-created all these scenes in an impressionistic way, with more attention to mood than detail.

But surely he should have been able to come up with a set that didn’t require at least one change that stopped the play cold in the first act. Even a piano interlude cannot change the fact that the audience spends too long watching the actors become stagehands.

But aside from a few bumps in the road, "The Most Happy Fella" is a most happy production. Its lighthearted optimism and faith in humanity is just what we need in these troubled and turbulent times.

The Gallery Players’ production of "The Most Happy Fella" plays through Sept. 29, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $15, $12 children under 12 and seniors. The Gallery Players theater is located at 199 14th St. between Fourth and Fifth avenues in Park Slope. For reservations, call (718) 595-0547.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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