Variety.com Review - A Man of No Importance
Review by Charles Isherwood
October 10, 2002
Most musicals don't aim for the virtue of modesty, so there's something touching
about the restrained ambitions of A Man of No Importance, an unabashedly
minor-key new show from the creators of the vastly larger-scaled Ragtime.
Here, book writer Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist
Lynn Ahrens tell an intimate story that aims merely to tug at a heartstring
or two and raise a dozen wry chuckles. This they do with an almost effortless
grace, aided by a director new to musicals, Joe Mantello, who proves a perfect
fit for a show that draws much of its energy from the subtle but spirited
participation of a superior cast. A Man of No Importance, based on
the 1994 movie starring Albert Finney, will not knock the socks off anyone,
and it is certainly not without its hoary or sentimental moments, but its
gentle-hearted charms may well please musical theater lovers wanting a break
from the bigger, brassier musical comedies flogging their glitzier attractions
The central character is Alfie Byrne (Roger Rees), a humble bus conductor
in 1964 Dublin. Alfie's passion is poetry, and he daily regales the regulars
on his route with dramatic readings. But the really big events in his life
are the amateur theatrical productions he stages in the small social hall
of the parish church, St. Imelda. Here Alfie and the other small-fry Dubliners
who populate the show -- a butcher, a housewife, a retired publican -- get
to escape from the crabbed limitations of their lives by participating with
more heart than skill, perhaps, in what Alfie insists on referring to as
They sing of the release they find in this pursuit in "Going Up," the energetic
comic highlight of the first act, which has a mock-showbizzy jazz rhythm
that Flaherty largely eschews in the rest of the score, which features soft-pedaled
melodies and fine Irish-flavored orchestrations from William David Brohn
and Christopher Jahnke. The butcher Mr. Carney, embodied with flavorful gusto
by Charles Keating, describes the thrill of leaving behind the workaday world
("Who gives a sausage then/for the orders of mortal men/when you're going
up!"), and is joined by the rest of the ragtag St. Imelda's crew, all celebrating
the liberation of life on the stage.
But Alfie himself is escaping from something more than his humble surroundings:
He's trying to escape from his very self. A reverence for art isn't the only
thing he has in common with his imagined mentor, Oscar Wilde (Keating again,
swathed in a cape); Alfie is also homosexual, or would be if he could admit
it to himself. His unspoken adoration of his handsome young co-worker Robbie
Fay (Steven Pasquale) is as much a secret sadness to him as his inability
to find a suitable wife is a source of less secret dissatisfaction to his
sister Lily (Faith Prince). She lives with Alfie and has vowed, somewhat
implausibly for 1964 Dublin, not to marry until he does.
Alfie's latest choice for the St. Imelda's players is Wilde's "Salome," and
Alfie thinks he's found his heroine in a newcomer to the troupe, fresh-from-the-country
Adele (Sally Murphy). If only he can convince Robbie to play John the Baptist,
all will be well.
But this being small-minded Ireland, it isn't. After intermission, clouds
gather quickly, and it is somewhat dispiriting to watch Alfie's quick humiliation
and exposure at the hands of a thug and the consequences that attend it.
The show's creators seem to buy into the notion that "the realm of the aesthetic,"
as Alfie puts it, speaking of Wilde, is a place of perfection in jarring
contrast to the "sewer" of actual life, a hoary conception.
The sour developments of the second act also require some jagged changes
of behavior that don't convince. Carney seems to be two different characters:
the free-spirited stage ham of act one, and Lily's censorious suitor in act
two (he's the one who blows the whistle on Alfie's salacious "Salome"). Lily
herself moves from disapproving disgust to apparent acceptance of Alfie's
sexuality in the course of a few bewildering choruses of a song. And Wilde
or no Wilde, why must Alfie equate homosexuality with flamboyance, donning
makeup and a swish when he finally works up the courage to express his sexuality?
Because he must be degraded, so we can cluck sadly at his plight, seems to
be the unfortunate answer.
If the creators of the show disappoint in following the trite and manipulative
plot laid out by the movie, one can nevertheless admire the skill and polish
they bring to its execution. Flaherty and Ahrens' score is always appealing,
if rarely surprising. Its only flaw is that too many of the songs are cut
from the same bolt of musical cloth: all gently lilting, shorn of ornamental
choruses and flashy effects, subtly inflected with authentic Irish colorings.
The songs are neatly knit together with McNally's book, which includes a
liberal helping of funny jokes (Alfie to priest: "Didn't you ever want to
go on the stage, father?" "I do, every Sunday. It's called High Mass.") and
is adept at delineating the show's superabundance of characters in quick
strokes. The St. Imelda's players are all quickly and expertly drawn, for
instance, and the first-rate actors who play them with verve and obvious
affection never allow caricature to get the upper hand, even if they can't
always keep quaintness at bay. (Neither, in truth, can the show as a whole.)
Playing a man for whom self-effacement is a necessity, Rees has an aptly
light touch. The emotionally constricted Alfie is not the type to break into
great gusts of song -- and is thus an odd duck to build a musical around
-- so the limitations of Rees' singing are not a problem. Pasquale gives
a nicely observed performance as Robbie, who is given his own secret source
of sorrow as a spur to sympathy for Alfie. Only Prince, who is uncomfortably
cast as the blinkered Lily, seems out of place here. (Katherine McGrath,
fine as always in two small roles, is more the type.)
Prince can sometimes be caught scavenging for laughs with broadly comic line
readings that rub against the grain of the show's muted tones. But it's hard
to blame her: The aptly damp-looking set by Loy Arcenas, the subtle-toned,
slightly worn costumes by Jane Greenwood and the excellent, vestigial-sunshine
lighting by Donald Holder all help to establish a world where minor pleasures
are the most that can be hoped for, and dreams are always being cut down
to size. In this atmosphere of miniature satisfactions, it's easy to understand
the desire to get a big, fat laugh.
Musical staging, Jonathan Butterell. Sets, Loy Arcenas; costumes, Jane Greenwood;
lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Scott Lehrer; music direction, Ted Sperling;
vocal arrangements, Flaherty; conductor, Rob Berman; orchestrations, William
David Brohn, Christopher Jahnke; stage manager, Michael Brunner. Opened Oct.
10, 2002. Reviewed Oct. 5. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.
Musical numbers: "A Man of No Importance," "The Burden of Life," "Going
Up," "Princess," "First Rehearsal," "The Streets of Dublin," "Books," "Man
in the Mirror," "Love Who You Love," "Our Father," "Confession," "The Cuddles
Mary Gave," "Art," "Confusing Times," "Tell Me Why," "Welcome to the World."