Early in the Broadway revival of "The Pajama Game," a gaggle of women gossip about what's up between the characters played by Kelli O'Hara and Harry Connick Jr., simply because they're the two hottest people onstage. Why are the knockouts always destined for each other? Can't anyone else have a chance?
In Frank Loesser's musical "The Most Happy Fella," which overlapped with "Pajama Game" on Broadway 50 years ago, the ingenue passes on the young stud in favor of a funny-looking older man. It's an intriguing concept, but one that New York City Opera's new revival doesn't quite pull off.
Tony, the shy Italian owner of a Napa Valley vineyard, leaves a love note for a waitress who serves him in a San Francisco cafe. He affectionately dubs her Rosabella. The pair trade letters, and Rosabella agrees to move to Napa to marry him, even though she doesn't remember meeting him. In a mail-order-bride situation that prefigures the hazards of online dating, Tony sends her a photo of the vineyard's handsome foreman instead of his own.
Paul Sorvino has done a few roles in musicals along with his many film and TV credits, and five years ago he underwent surgery for the acid reflux that hindered his singing. Sorvino is such a perfect physical match for a Tony that one expects him to command the stage from the start.
But Sorvino enters with a tentative rendition of the title song and spends much of the first act fading into the background.
Loesser's book doesn't give him much to do, and the City Opera staging sometimes has the supporting cast literally leading him around.
In the second act, Tony is closer to the center of things, and his relationship with Rosabella (Lisa Vroman) flourishes convincingly. Sorvino loosens up and shows off his vocal chops. Still, at times he seems to be holding back; on a few lines, he's almost inaudible. Tony can be a spacey sad sack, but he still needs enough charm and charisma to convince Rosabella to fall for him, and for the vineyard workers to rally around him.
The sets date back to a 1991 production, but everything else is new, including the direction by Philip Wm. McKinley ("The Boy From Oz"). This production restores two songs sung by Tony's protective sister, Marie (Karen Murphy) - "Eyes Like a Stranger" and "Nobody's Ever Gonna Love You Like I Love You" - that the producers made Loesser cut from the original production. While they help set up the competition between Marie and Rosabella for Tony's affections, that tension is left underdeveloped and unresolved.
The biggest pleasure is the secondary couple, played by Leah Hocking and John Scherer, who lead the chorus through the rousing Western-themed "Big D." Plus, at the end of the show, you can't help but feel happy for the regular guy with the hot blonde in his arms.
THE MOST HAPPY FELLA. Directed by Philip Wm. McKinley. New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. Tickets $25 to $120. Call 212-870-5570 or visit www.nycopera.com.