Off Broadway Reviews
The musical, which is based on the 1994 film of the same name, has a book by Terrence McNally with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Set in Dublin in 1964, A Man of No Importance centers around Alfie Byrne (Jim Parsons), a bus conductor with a penchant for Oscar Wilde. Alfie stages plays at St. Imelda's, the local parish, featuring the enthusiastic but talent-impaired transit riders, Irish laborers, and homemakers. For his newest production of Wilde's Salome, Alfie hopes to cast his Bosie, the handsome young bus driver Robbie Fay (A. J. Shively), and the shy and attractive new Dublin transplant Adele Rice (Shereen Ahmed).
Alfie lives with his overly protective sister Lily (Mare Winningham), who vows not to get married until her brother has a wife to take care of him. This is not a small sacrifice because she and Mr. Carney (Thom Sesma), the butcher next door, have been unofficially engaged for years. Alfie is a closeted gay man, so the brother and sister seem destined to lives of romantic unfulfillment. When his secret is exposed and the Church cancels Salome, which Father Kenny (Nathaniel Stampley) deems a "dirty play," Alfie's world seems to come crashing down around him.
When I saw the original Off-Broadway production at Lincoln Center, I was left unmoved and ultimately dispirited. Roger Rees and Faith Prince, its two stars, were fine, but I didn't believe them as an unrefined, working-class, middle-aged brother and sister. Flaherty and Ahrens, who were following up on the unsuccessful but immensely tuneful Seussical, created a serviceable but somewhat bland score that merged Irish folk music with traditional musical theatre songs. And McNally, who had previously worked with the duo on Ragtime (and would later collaborate with them on Anastasia), provided a proficient but surprisingly unaffecting book.
Working with the same material, and with an outstanding cast, Doyle (who also provided the set design, which makes excellent use of wooden chairs and over-sized curtains) reveals that the show is not simply about a frustrated gay man living in a homophobic society. It is at its heart about a community of lonely people who have lost love, experienced unrequited love, or are looking for love through extramarital affairs. Alfie's song to Adele, "Love Who You Love," sums up the musical's big-hearted message. In the process, the performances bare the latent poignancy that had formerly lay hidden underneath.
Additionally, the circulating characters/musicians add to the sense of immediacy and intimacy. Except for a very unfortunate moment when an overzealous guitarist ferociously and climactically stamped the floor next to my chair and all but ruined the best song in the score, "The Streets of Dublin," exhilaratingly sung by Shively, the roving music adds to the aural experience. (Bruce Coughlin orchestrated, and all of the musicians–even the overzealous guitarist–do fine work under Caleb Hoyer's direction.)
For many people, the chief draw will be Parsons, who does not disappoint. He sings effectively and exudes a warm gentleness while portraying a comically condescending Wildean aesthete. Winningham proves once again that she is a sublime musical theatre performer. Her commanding and folksy voice is perfectly suited to the score, especially the pleading "Tell Me Why." Impressively, she conveys agonizing fragility under a tough-as-nails exterior. The rest of the ensemble is excellent, and there is an embarrassment of riches with Broadway stalwarts, such as Alma Cuervo, Mary Beth Peil, and William Youmans rounding out the cast.
I found myself tearing up at the end and not simply due to the plight of a gay man who is struggling to live his honest self. Been there, done that, saw it all before. Indeed, it's a story worth telling, but what moved me was the reminder that even at a time when we are socially and politically more disconnected than ever, the theatre can provide a forgiving, comforting, and accepting space. And you don't even have to play a musical instrument to be a part of it.
A Man of No Importance