IRVING — Lyric Stage’s recent world premiere of Larry Gatlin’s Quanah, a musical about the last Comanche chief, was controversial, but a box-office success for the spunky professional musical theater company. There’s nothing controversial or unexpected about its current world premiere, Pure Country at the Irving Arts Center, directed and choreographed by Quanah‘s John de los Santos, but it’s a charmer with a Texas twang and tuneful score by Grammy nominees Steve Dorff and John Bettis, that deserves a long and healthy future on regional stages.
The show, adapted by Rex McGee from his 1992 Warner Bros. hit film of the same name, is the story of Rusty, a country superstar who ditches one of his flashy concerts to hitch a ride home to the small town where he got his start 10 years ago and the sweetheart to whom he lost his heart.
You probably know how it plays out, with a couple of conflicts to slow down the inevitable, but the performances and the songs are so appealing, it takes you to a thoughtful place on more than one occasion, as you consider the ever relevant question posed in Matthew 16:26: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
Harley Jay, a Broadway vet who also has his own band, wears Rusty like a soulful pair of jeans, while Marissa Lesch brings a big voice to the hurt love he left behind and tries to win back. Dallas’ popular Broadway diva, Julie Johnson, makes a welcome return as Rusty’s adoptive mother, the woman who encouraged him and her son, Earl (Brent Loper, another talented country singer and theatrical artist) to perform, and provides continuity with the movie; Johnson played a waitress in the film.
Cara Statham Serber brings home the comedy with a touch of poignancy as Lula, Rusty’s manager, although the part, as written, could provide more clarity as to what drives her — ambition or feelings for Rusty. Justin Duncan provides the comic relief as Marty, the New York talent manager who is out of his element in Texas, with a nice turn by Jacob Lewis as Charlie, who will do anything to get a piece of the life Rusty doesn’t want anymore. With expansion, Charlie’s character could provide a few All About Eve-like twists as he pursues his climb up the career ladder.
Randel Wright’s Texas-savvy sets, from Harley’s cozy small-town country farm to the gaudy lights in the Prairie Rose bar, shows he knows his Lone Star State and what sights will get a roar of approval from the crowd. Music director, conductor and Fort Worth native Eugene Gwozdz, arranged and plays one of the keyboards for the onstage band. He, too, brings years of experience on Broadway and national tours, and it shows in delivering a smooth and memorable score, from gentle Dorff and Bettis gems like “Lost My Way” and “Don’t Remind Me” to the crowd-rousing fun of “It Ain’t Texas.”
Pure Country is an old-fashioned tale that provides another reason for nostalgia: The show will be the company’s last at the Irving Arts Center for the foreseeable future. Lyric Stage moves to the Majestic Theatre in Dallas for its new four-show season. So hurry — there’s just one more weekend if y’all want to catch an uplifting yarn in Lyric’s last show in its old home.