Pat Haden always seemed like a well-scrubbed character from your mother’s favorite musical, so when he showed up last week in USC’s big spring production — actors, crew and musicians outnumbering the football team — it wasn’t surprise casting.
Indeed, it might be yet another new career for the guy who vertically leaps from one thing to the next the way you and I leap from tee box to tee box. If this keeps up, he’ll soon be running Paramount.
Still, the other night he used the word “fidoodled,” in his role as Postman No. 2. As in: “the way he’s got this place all fidoodled up for you.”
Musical theater may never be the same.
As the sports department’s designated theater critic — I also review wines, carnivals and children’s books — I ventured out to the USC athletic director’s stage debut the other evening, nearly getting scissored by skateboarders at the corner of Trousdale and Childs Way (how appropriate). I think I heard the Tommy Trojan statue actually laugh.
Stepping onto the USC campus always makes me feel a little old, like when you hear on Facebook that some former classmate just had grandpups, or that Chelsea Clinton is now 33.
Yet, onto this designer college campus I trod, over to the Bing Theatre, where this potential fiasco is about to take place.
Haden’s never acted before, except before audiences of demanding alums and sourpuss sportswriters. Which, come to think of it, must be better training than the Royal Scottish Academy.
I settle into my seat, surrounded by at least a dozen others. Then another dozen show up. The spring musical isn’t exactly USC versus Notre Dame. On Saturday night, seats were readily available. Maybe Art Bartner should send over the band.
The show itself is interesting, though creaky as an ex-quarterback’s knees. Set in 1927 Napa Valley, “The Most Happy Fella” involves a fake suitor for a mail-order bride who eventually falls for the real suitor despite being impregnated by the fake suitor.
I know what you’re thinking: “Just another Saturday night on a college campus,” but this involves singing and a surprising amount of physical affection.
OK, so it is just another Saturday night on a college campus.
The main character is Tony Esposito, whom you may remember in real life as a talented backstop for the Chicago Blackhawks, always performing in the shadow of his brother Phil, a cherry-picking center for the Bruins.
Here, he is a farmer.
Never heard of this musical myself, but it’s full of the kinds of songs your grandfather used to whistle.
Then late in the first half, out steps Haden in the demanding role of Postman No. 2, reporting that he picked up the mail-order bride at the train station, a key plot point. Without Haden, she stays at the station and probably leaps in front of a train. So it’s an almost nonexistent yet pivotal role.
“I seen her at the station with a straw suitcase,” he drawwwwwwls.
After the show, Haden says this foray into live theater was his idea, an effort to persuade the school’s athletes to take advantage of activities outside the athletic department. Looking back 40 years from when he was an athlete, he says he wishes he’d tried additional activities.
“One of my goals is to have the kids have a real college experience,” he explains.
What do his buddies think?
“They think I’m crazy.”
Was he nervous?
“No, other than the first night — when I almost threw up.”
In truth, his singing’s a little pitchy, as they say on “Idol,” but Haden does have a certain stage presence and funny way with a corn-pone line.
After his solo, Postman No. 2 is off, slipping into a seat in the theater’s back row to watch the second act, in which he does not appear.
Seriously, despite the kids’ terrific performances (particularly Cole Cuomo and Adrienne Visnic), the second act isn’t just long, it’s millennial. Think a 43-inning baseball game. Think a Saturday night in South Bend.
But I salute Haden, for sticking around for the curtain call, for bravely stepping out of his comfort zone and trying to bring together divergent parts of this sprawling, occasionally fidoodled university.
Comfort zones are so overrated these days. Me, I don’t have one at all.
“The Most Happy Fella” runs through Sunday. Info: https://www.usc.edu/spectrum, or (213) 740-2167. Because of previous commitments, Haden will not appear in the two Saturday performances.