Years ago, before I ever heard the score of the largely neglected 1954 Harold Rome musical "Fanny," it was described to me by an aging theater director as a show that would "make the entire (expletive) audience cry." Truth be told, I didn't notice too many Encores! subscribers bringing out tissues to wipe away their tears, but that is not to say that Rome's frequently sweeping melodies didn't manage to tug at our heartstrings. The romantic and repetitive title song, so direct and simple in its emotional appeal, so melodically lush, is difficult to ignore.
David Merrick's fearless determination to produce a musical based on Marcel Pagnol's trilogy is well chronicled in "The Abominable Showman," Howard Kissel's excellent bio on Merrick, including how he showed up at Pagnol's doorstep in France to beg for the stage rights. Once acquired, Rodgers & Hammerstein would only agree to write the score of Merrick did not receive lead producing credit. Merrick, always the egotist and eager to make a name for himself, didn't acquiesce. (Hammerstein was said to later regret not writing "Fanny.")
Rome, whose handful of musicals also includes the popular Depression revue "Pins and Needles," "I Can Get It For You Wholesale," "Destry Rides Again," "Call Me Mister," and "Wish You Were Here," is largely forgotten today since none of these shows ever achieved "classic" (i.e. revivable) status. Still, his music is charismatic and easily likable, and his lyrics are character-specific, sometimes effectively simplistic (title song of "Fanny"), and just as often quite surprising ("Welcome Home" in "Fanny"). "Fanny" is probably his strongest score, and I don't foresee Encores! performing any of his other shows anytime soon.
I'd describe the musical as "Carousel" meets "Grumpy Old Men" with a circus scene randomly thrown in somewhere. Set in Marseille, Fanny is a sweet young girl hopelessly in love with Marius, who is more attracted to the wide open sea than the opposite sex. The Admirable, a devilish, super creepy sailor with a habit of suddenly materializing out of thin air, tries to egg Marius into joining him on a nearby ship that is set for a five-year voyage. So rather than lose Marius entirely, Fanny essentially agrees to let Marius take her virginity and then sail away and achieve his dream the very next morning. Fanny's saucy mother, understandably less than thrilled to learn of her daughter's pregnancy, eggs her to marry Panisse, a newly-widowed, extremely rich older man who has already been proposing to the young girl on a daily basis. Panisse has a long-term, love-hate friendship with Marius' father Cesar, who had wanted Marius to marry Fanny, and practically disowns Marius after he abandons his family.
Act Two, which is set on several birthdays of Fanny and Panisse's son, observes surprise encounters between affluent but passionless Fanny and hard-luck, frustrated Marius. The solution? Kill off Panisse, which allows Fanny to marry Marius and get laid again while being able to keep her son and all of Panisse's money. Panisse even suggests this fate. But just to make sure the audience doesn't feel too bad for him, he reveals to a priest on his deathbed that he's been cheating on Fanny with another woman. Bastard!
Marc Bruni, a longtime associate director on Broadway musicals such as "Legally Blonde" and "Grease," finally stands on his own with his staging of "Fanny," which is sincerely romantic and vocally powerful, if not quite dramatically effective or representative of the beloved Encores! series at its very best. (It is, of course, incredibly better than the recent Encores! staging of "Girl Crazy," which was a total misfire.) The musical's book, by S.N. Behrman and original director Joshua Logan, adapted from Pagnol, is so jam-packed with plot that it feels even more superficial in David Ives' somewhat condensed revision. And while the original book is admittedly lighthearted, Bruni's cast plays it up for laughs a bit too often and aggressively. But the story itself is still moving, and the score is certainly a treat.
I think the production's biggest problem is the (mis)casting of Elena Shaddow as Fanny, who is not believable as an 18-year-old girl, and overplays the desperacy of Fanny's emotions. Still, she has a golden soprano voice that is perfectly suited to the score. (For a far better performance, watch Leslie Caron in the 1961 film version, which kept the musical's book intact but deleted all the songs.) On the other hand, the ultra-handsome James Snyder, who played the Johnny Depp character in the flop musical version of the film "Cry-Baby," gives a simplistic but admittedly effective performance as the eternally longing, immature Marius.
And what of the adults? Priscilla Lopez, who entered the cast late in the game to replace an ill Rondi Reed as Fanny's mother, is a bit too attractive for the role. (We are supposed to think that she is foolish for initially thinking that Panisse would want to propose to her, and not Fanny.) George Hearn, who is making his first appearance in an Encores! show, projects a frailty as Cesar that one would not have expected of the man who went to emotional extremes in "Sweeney Todd" and wardrobe extremes in "La Cage Aux Folles." Hearn is in excellent voice, though he relied a bit too much on his script, even for his character's solo songs.
The best performance in the cast comes from Fred Applegate, who played Inspector Kemp and the Blind Hermit in "Young Frankenstein," but is better known as one of the many replacements for Nathan Lane in "The Producers." His songs, which are not exactly the best in the score ("Panisse and Son," "To My Wife"), unexpectedly turn into showstoppers thanks to his liveliness and generous spirit.
In a behind-the-scenes video interview with BroadwayWorld.com, James Snyder suggested turning the title song of "Fanny" into a drinking game: take a drink every time that Marius says "Fanny." Call me crazy, but I actually think this would be a wonderful way to increase the musical's popularity. In fact, I'm playing it now.