By Thom Geier
April 04, 2014 at 06:00 PM EDT
Joan Marcus

Six years after writing the classic musical Guys and Dolls, composer Frank Loesser introduced audiences to The Most Happy Fella. The show has an often lush, operatic, and nearly-sung-through score — but the book is a dated, borderline racist bit of nonsense about an Italian immigrant vineyard owner in the Napa Valley who talks-a like-a this-a and even refers to himself at one point as “a stupid, ugly, old wop.”

In other words, it’s just the sort of problematic chestnut to get a five-night-only revival this week as part of the New York City Center Encores! series, a two-decade-old program that’s produced revivals of underseen musicals like Chicago (still running on Broadway), the Patti LuPone-led Gypsy, and this season’s jazz revue After Midnight.

As played by a 38-piece orchestra under the fine direction of Rob Berman, Loesser’s tunes sound fantastic — and the cast is first-rate. Shuler Hemsley plays the vineyard owner who meets a much younger waitress (sweet-voiced Laura Benanti) in San Francisco and woos her long distance via a pre-Internet trick: He sends her letters with a photo of his studly young foreman (30 Rock‘s Cheyenne Jackson). Complications naturally ensue.

Benanti is stellar on ballads like “Warm All Over” and “My Heart Is So Full of You,” but the scene-stealers here are some of the second fiddles, particularly Jay Armstrong Johnson as a lanky hayseed from Dallas. A standout just last month as Anthony in the New York Philharmonic’s staged concert version of Sweeney Todd (with Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lovett), Johnson delights with his wide-eyed manner and rubber-limbed dance moves. (Casey Nicholaw pulls double duty as director and choreography.) Whether he’s just “Standing on the Corner” or singing the praises of his Texas hometown in “Big D” — an explosive second-act showstopper — Johnson may be the most happy fella in a generally joyous production.