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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Latté Da gives a tender airing to
A Man of No Importance

A Man of No ImportanceIt's a fair old challenge to make a compelling musical about a meek man. But A Man of No Importance by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) has the potential to be just that.

It's an unassuming musical about prejudice, acceptance and, finally, friendship. Alfie Byrne is a middle-aged bus conductor, whose muse is Oscar Wilde. Alfie entertains his bus passengers with Wilde's poetry in 1964 Dublin, a place of rigid moral conformity under the iron hand of the Catholic Church. Alfie lives a small life with his sister and finds solace in books and in directing amateur theatricals in the basement of St. Imelda's Church. When Alfie leads his bus passenger troupe into the suggestive vagaries of Wilde's "Salomé," he butts head-on into Catholic piety and confronts "the love that cannot be spoken" that he has kept hidden, even from himself.

Theater Latté Da realizes much of A Man of No Importance's potential in a production that feels fittingly working class and, in spite of clumsy Irish accents, has well sung and authentic-feeling major characters. But there's a seemingly irresistible pitfall for American productions that are set in Ireland, and director Peter Rothstein tips right in.

With the minor characters, Rothstein opts for easy laughs in broad, green-Irish comedic types, rude mechanicals whose inauthenticity detracts from the substance of the work. And Man is a musical with real substance. The humor in the smaller parts could be so much funnier if the eccentricity and ineptness were not overplayed, and laughter were allowed to arise out of acting and the wit in McNally's book.

On the strong side, Rothstein pitches Tod Peterson's playing of Alfie with just the right understated aptness. Peterson sings the mild-mannered bus conductor with complete naturalness in a pleasant tenor voice. In the touching song, "Man in the Mirror," Alfie searches the mirror to know who this man, with thinning hair and a thickening waist, really is. Peterson finds Alfie's sweetness without surrendering to sentimentality and, even after a street beating on his first tentative venture beyond the closet door, he retains a quiet dignity. His Alfie is a good man, ordinary - one of us.

In appropriate contrast, lovely Zoe Pappas as fragile Adele, and dashing Dieter Bierbrauer as Alfie's love focus bus driver Robbie, are charismatic scene-stealers. Alfie recruits Adele, a new bus passenger, to play Salomé, and Pappas sings the song "Princess" in a soprano, trembling with loneliness and vulnerability. Thoroughly heterosexual Robbie fills the stage with manliness, when he sings "The Streets of Dublin."

In a particularly affecting scene, Alfie is at Confession with Father Kenny (Jonathan Peterson), and he's struggling with a decision to reveal his suspected homosexuality to the bored priest. In Alfie's imagination, his conscience speaks through Robbie, who urges him to reveal his leanings. It's a lovely vignette of musical theater, and a nice sympathy between Peterson and Bierbrauer energizes the scene.

Among a well-sung ensemble, Ann Michel's powerful voice stands out in her several roles, Vera Mariner sings a comic Lily (Alfie's weary, self-martyring sister) and George Muellner sings her love interest, the ego-driven butcher Carney. Walter Weaver finds poignancy in the song "The Cuddles Mary Gave" as the lonely widower Baldy, and Joseph Botten has amusing comic moments as Lally. Donna Glennie and Xavier Rice round out Man's deep ensemble.

Flaherty's music, played on stage under Denise Prosek's direction, will not send you home humming memorable tunes, but his score is accessible and pleasingly informed by Irish musical traditions, and it captures the moods of Ahren's lyrics.

On Michael Hoover's all purpose set, Jenny DeGolier's lighting also reflects mood and cleverly distinguishes between the musical's many settings.

I have long admired Katherine Kohl's unconventional costume design, but in Man, a period piece, her flair for eccentric design erupts oddly among the working class clothes of economically depressed Dublin of the 1960s.

Although not perfect, Latté Da finds the warm heart of Man in an ambitious and well-sung Midwestern premiere of an appealingly different musical.

A Man of No Importance March 19 - April 17. Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sunday matinees 2:00 p.m. Additional performance April 5, at 7:30 p.m. $10 - 25:00. Theater Latté Da, at The Loring Playhouse , 1633, Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-343-3390. www.ticketworks.com.


Photo: Rick Spaulding



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Elizabeth Weir



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