IRVING -- Something magical happened last Saturday night at the Irving Arts Center. After Lyric Stage's production of Frank Loesser's 1956 work The Most Happy Fella, the first show in its 20th season, his widow, Jo Sullivan Loesser, who had been in the audience, was brought onstage to sing a song.
Before doing that, she gave lengthy hugs to the main players, especially Amber Nicole Guest, who played Rosabella, the part that Jo Sullivan Loesser originated.
Emotions were high. Loesser proclaimed it one of the best productions of the work she had seen, and then sang one of her late husband's Hollywood songs, Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year. Tears flowed in the audience and onstage, but honestly, they hadn't stopped since the three-hour show's ending.
It was that good.
Lyric Stage keeps raising its own bar, and while it's hard to beat the group's most recent triumph -- a production of Oklahoma! that was as definitive as you'll ever see -- the rarer Fella comes awfully close.
When Fella debuted on Broadway, the producers went out of their way not to label it "opera," because operas didn't fare as well there. Fella is decidedly more opera, but happily straddles the fence between the two art forms.
That's one of the reasons it's not performed much, and when it is, it's as much by opera companies as by musical theaters. Working from Don Walker's original orchestrations, Lyric musical director Jay Dias has reconstructed the score for a 38-piece orchestra, and under his baton, the overture and prelude to Act II sound marvelous. His ability to connect with the performers onstage is one of many reasons Lyric's productions outshine the others.
Most Happy Fella is a mammoth show, and director Cheryl Denson and choreographer Len Pfluger pace it like an earthy cabernet being savored with a delectable dessert.
But of course, it all hinges on casting. As Tony, baritone and Broadway vet Bill Nolte is physically perfect for the role of an Italian-American vineyard owner who is so desperate for love that he pays waitress Rosabella to be his wife, and is constantly harped on by his sister Marie (Jodi C. Wright) for never being good -- or good-looking -- enough.
Much of the material Dias has added back into the show is for Marie, and Wright sings it gloriously, making you feel sorry for the audiences that have never heard Nobody's Ever Gonna Love You.
As two Texans who bump into each other and give us a more traditional love story, Herman (Alex Organ) and Cleo (Catherine Carpenter Cox) are ahoot, and hold their own with the vocal material. And the chorus sounds as good as you're likely to hear on an opera stage.
And then there's Guest, a local performer who makes a breakthrough with a starring role in a professional company. She more than hits the notes in a demanding vocal role; the character's sense of sadness changes from hopeful in the early song Somebody, Somewhere to that of a changed woman in Please Let Me Tell You in the third act. Rosabella and Tony will each never have the bubbly personality of a Herman-type, but together in true love, it's a new kind of happily ever after.
When a show called The Most Happy Fella has you bawling by the end, all involved have done the work proud.