A Recording of Some Importance
by Brooke Pierce
April 25, 2003
It took a little while but, nearly five months after finishing its winter run at Lincoln Center, A Man of No Importance has finally received a cast recording thanks to JAY Records.
If Bill Rosenfield were still heading up the "Shows and Soundtracks" department at RCA, one might have expected him to nab this Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty tuner (that vaunted label has recorded most of the team's musicals). But, nowadays, smaller companies like PS Classics, Sh-K-Boom, and JAY are picking up the slack while the bigger outfits focus on more popular genres. While it's a shame that many worthy musicals are going ignored by companies like RCA, these shows have been getting the royal treatment by the smaller labels, A Man of No Importance being a case in point. Along with the CD, JAY includes a beautiful booklet complete with lyrics, many color photos, an introduction by bookwriter Terrence McNally, and a synopsis provided by lyricist Ahrens. Produced by John Yap, Ahrens, and Flaherty, the album sounds great and the nine-piece orchestra is in excellent form under Ted Sperling's musical direction. The disc even includes a bonus track.
Based on the 1994 film that starred Albert Finney, A Man of No Importance tells the story of Alfie Byrne, a kind-hearted, middle-aged bus conductor who lives with his sister in 1960s Dublin. While leading a bunch of friends and locals through an amateur production of Oscar Wilde's controversial Salome, the closeted Alfie begins to come to terms with his homosexuality. A small, unassuming musical about a small, unassuming man, AMONI came and went too quickly for a show that was bursting at the seams with talents like director Joe Mantello, bookwriter McNally, and the celebrated songwriting team of Ahrens & Flaherty. The cast was loaded with top performers, from British thesp Roger Rees in the lead to New York stalwarts like Faith Prince, Jessica Molaskey, Martin Moran, and Sally Murphy in supporting roles, plus a host of in-the-trenches theater regulars like Michael McCormick, Luther Creek, and...well, I won't list the entire company, but suffice it to say that they were all wonderful.
One of the most prevelant opinions of A Man of No Importance in its Lincoln Center production was that it featured A&F's least remarkable scores in years. But though it's not up to the standard that the team set for themselves with their work on Once on This Island and Ragtime, the AMONI score serves the show's simple story well. Flaherty's Celtic-flavored melodies and Ahrens's colloquial lyrics make for pleasant and enjoyable songs, even if they rarely inspire the listener to hit the CD player's "Repeat" button. The recording gives one an opportunity to appreciate the craft that A&F bring to all of their work, from the fine extended opening sequence to small gems like "Princess" (sung with gentle irony by Murphy) and "The Cuddles Mary Gave" (delivered lovingly by Ronn Carroll).
Faith Prince's beautiful performance as Alfie's sister Lily is preserved in two of the show's best moments, the charming "The Burden of Life" and the heartbreaking "Tell Me Why." (Her other song, a duet with Charles Keating called "Books," is a bit too cute). "The Streets of Dublin," generally considered the show's high point, loses a little of its luster when dedprived of its rousing staging; still, it remains a goosebump-inducing song and a perfect vehicle for the outstanding Steven Pasquale, who plays the object of Alfie's affection. "Going Up" and "Art," both sweet and funny tributes to the enduring spirit of amateur theater performers, are terrific showcases for the ensemble. The second-act opener, "Our Father," is as arresting here as it was in the theater, Jessica Molaskey's voice soaring as the band beats out Flaherty's raucous Irish stomp.
As for Rees, he's no great singer. But his warm characterization of Alfie is good enough to put over his first major ballad, "Love Who You Love," while his acting skills are fully displayed in such scene-songs as "Man in the Mirror" and "Confession." It's rather surprising to realize how much dialogue there is in these songs; Ahrens & Flaherty may have done this to accommodate Rees's limited singing voice, but it could also be reflective of Alfie's metaphorical inability to sing, which is resolved in his final, revelatory solo "Welcome to the World."
When all is said and done, it's the album's bonus track that's most memorable. "Love's Never Lost," sung a cappella and only in part by Rees in a pub scene in the show, is rendered in its entirety here by cast member Sean McCourt to the accompaniment of his own guitar and Antoine Silverman's plaintive fiddle. In this little song, Ahrens & Flaherty achieve a level of simple but transcendent lyricism that the show as a whole never quite reaches.