Lyric Stage in Irving has established itself as one of the premiere producers of meticulously reconstructed revivals Broadway musicals in the country. Founding Producer Steven Jones has collaborated with Jay Dias, a music director with a musicologist's bent and a national reputation as a conductor, to research these shows and restore them to their original glory. Jones produces them at the Irving Arts Center with the original full orchestra and an outstanding cast.
This is what they do, and you would be hard pressed to find a company that does it any better.
Such is the case with their current production of Frank Loesser's 1956 show The Most Happy Fella. This show is really closer to opera than Broadway and, indeed, opera companies have produced it. The leading role of Tony requires an operatic baritone capable of carrying the entire show and someone who would be capable of singing Verdi's Rigoletto. In fact, the 1979 Broadway revival starred Metropolitan Opera star Giorgio Tozzi. All of the other roles require excellent actors with operatically trained voices – even the smaller roles. This presents a great challenge to any company doing a production of the show.
Lyric Stage has met and exceeded the challenges and it would be hard to imagine a better production by any regional theater or opera company anywhere.
All of the characters come from the so-called lower classes: waitress, farm laborer, postman, and various other townsfolk. Director Cheryl Denson infuses all of them with naturalness and the kind of nobility conferred by honestly rather than rank. Choreographer Len Pfluger seamlessly moves stage action to dance and then back again. The extended ballet sections are artfully handled and, while using classic ballet techniques, you never feel like all of a sudden the townsfolk were replaced with the Bolshoi Ballet, as happens so frequently in Broadway shows.
As Tony, Nolte is definitive in the role. Period. The End.
He perfectly captures the older Italian immigrant's character; grumpy, boisterous, generous, forthright - and with a heart as big as his voice. As his possessive sister, Marie, constantly reminds him, he isn't smart or handsome, but Nolte infuses him with a peasant's graciousness that transcends all of those perceived faults. His program blurb only mentions Broadway roles, but vocally, he could easily grace the stage of any opera house in the world.
Amber Nicole Guest, as Rosabella, also possesses a beautiful voice that is capable of a wide variety of singing styles. As her character evolves through the trials and tribulations of being a waitress turned mail order bride, her vocal colorings keep up with the events.
Jodi C. Wright also has the opera chops to sing a wide range of roles. Anyone who lists Baba, a contralto role in Menotti's The Medium and The Queen of the Night, a stratospheric coloratura role in Mozart's Magic Flute, must have a voice of mystical qualities. Here, she is in full mezzo territory and very impressive.
According to Dias, most of the Marie music was cut early on in the history of the show because it was too operatic and the producers thought that it would damage the chances of having a hit. After hearing her sing it in such an impassioned way, you can only marvel at what a shortsighted decision this was. Her whole life is, and has been, taking care of Tony and she panics as she sees it slipping away. It is hard to imagine how the passion of her big aria "Nobody's Gonna Love You" could have been translated to dialogue.
[That aria is sometimes added into opera company productions, as it was for a New York City Opera in 1991. Here it is, preceded by "Tony and Marie Duet," performed by Louis Quilico and Nancy Shade]
Doug Carpenter's voice is more typical of Broadway singers, but he could probably hold his own on the opera stage in the right role. He is a little stiff, but handsome and charming, as the drifter foreman, Joe. Catherine Carpenter Cox is a perky and world-wise Cleo. Vocally, she also has a great voice, although she pushes and over sings from time to time which puts an unnecessary edge on the sound. Alex Organ is terrific as the goofy Herman and his wide-open vocal production, which wouldn't work elsewhere and will not serve him well as he gets older, adds to his endearing gee-golly-shucks gullibility.
The chorus sounds terrific, as does the orchestra. None of the chorus are faceless townspeople. Denson gives them all personalities and individuality and they are great fun to watch. Loesser helps by creating groups of characters, such as three chefs, individual characters for the farmhands, and a friendly postman. Sets and costumes are all first rate. Dias is magnificent on the podium. There is never a moment where the stage and orchestra are out of sync.
In short, this is a first-class production of a show that Loesser considered to be his masterpiece. Lyric Stage makes sure it lives up to that reputation.
◊ Read our interview with Frank Loesser's widow, Jo Sullivan Loesser, here. She was at opening night of Lyric's show, by the way, and proclaimed it one of the best productions of it she has seen.
◊ And here is a video preview for the production: