One danger inherent in any musical dealing with theatrical production is that of unflatteringly describing itself in a lyric.
That moment came for A Man of No Importance, the new Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical (with a book by Terrence McNally) at the Mitzi E. Newhouse theatre, during the second act song, "Art," a montage in which Alfie Byrne (Roger Rees), leader of the small St. Imelda theatre group, in observing the troublesome state of his current production, sings, "It's a collaboration, there will be failures and frustration." Both qualities are sadly evident throughout this well-intentioned musical retelling of the 1994 film of the same name.
The story, set in 1964 Dublin, centers around Alfie, a middle-aged bus worker only able to express his innermost thoughts and desires through the words of others. His sister Lily (Faith Prince) wants to see him wed so that she can marry safe in the knowledge that he will be taken care of. Unbeknownst to her, he's a homosexual, so deeply closeted it takes him a long time to admit to himself the powerful attraction he feels for his co-worker, Robbie (Stephen Pasquale).
This subject matter would be difficult to musicalize under the best of circumstances, requiring highly sensitive internal writing that would still be theatrical enough to grip and engage an audience for two and a half hours. Though Ahrens and Flaherty are unquestionably talented, they were perhaps not the composers for this story; they excel less at writing songs than miniature musical stories. These often prove standalone material, but are generally weaker in communicating a musical's necessary overarching narrative.
Therefore, their songs need real direction to find shape with each other and the show. A director who understand this can help them make magic (Once On This Island), a half-formed concept can result in a half-formed show (Ragtime), and too many concepts can prove unduly messy (Seussical). Joe Mantello proves to not be the ideal director for A Man of No Importance. The show's first moments suggest a concept (Alfie's memory as a theatre piece) never fully explored, but Mantello's inexperience with musicals is an even more significant liability; his direction of McNally's well-honed and expressive book scenes make those feel like the intrinsic part of a polished work that the score never does.
Ahrens and Flaherty needed to be pushed to achieve more. The songs are all pleasant and have the lilting Irish sound one would expect from a copiously researched Flaherty score, but they're just frequently not right for the material. "Going Up," about the excitement of starting a new play is straight out of a show-biz biography, with Jonathan Butterell's incessantly cheesy choreography and hackneyed amateur theatre clichés. "Books," shared by Lily with her boyfriend (Charles Keating) is small talk set to music, making a non-issue into an earth-shattering event. "Our Father," the second act opener, seems to have been written entirely to give the thrilling Jessica Molaskey something real to sing, while the only number with real heart is given to Ronn Carroll's very minor character instead of those at the real heart of the show. (Despite the title, "The Cuddles That Mary Gave" is a warm, fairly pleasing song.)
The performers are all talented and highly professional, but with the exception of the dynamic Pasquale, who fits his role like a glove, and the muted charm of Sally Murphy as the young woman Alfie casts an unlikely Salome, everyone else seems a bit lost in trying to make more of the show than is on the page. Rees works overtime trying to find Alfie's emotional core, but never really gets there; when it's almost impossible to care about Alfie, it's even harder to care about the show.
Loy Arcenas's unit set (complete with turntable) is nice, Jane Greenwood's costumes are straightforward in their period simplicity, and Donald Holder's lights are fine if a bit busy at times. They could never make or break a show like this, which seems to understand itself all too well at times, as is evidenced by lines like, "Those who attempt tragedy must be prepared for an unhappy ending." A Man of No Importance is far from a tragedy, but there are no happy endings here either.
Lincoln Center Theatre