By Lynn Venhaus
Passion drives the characters and the R-S Theatrics production of a miraculous little musical that has something to say. The title “A Man of No Importance” is a misnomer, for Alfie Byrne is a remarkable human being whose significance is mirrored in the faces of his fellow Dubliners.
In a blockbuster musical theater climate that regularly serves feel-good fluff and spectacle, Broadway heavyweights Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty wrote pensive Irish-inflected music and lyrics and four-time Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally penned the book for a heartfelt rumination on friendship, acceptance, creative expression and social mores for a 2002 Lincoln Center production.
This unconventional off-Broadway diamond in the rough feels like a pot o’ gold discovery today. McNally, whose bold work on gay themes has been heralded worldwide, adapted the 1994 film “A Man of No Importance” starring Albert Finney into an introspective work of substance, a fanfare for the common man with wry humor and touching moments.
Unlike the grand ambition of their masterpiece “Ragtime,” McNally,
and Ahrens and Flaherty, through their songs, give meaning to modest people and
their small-scale dreams and desires. And it’s in a specific setting – a working-class
Dublin parish in 1964, with quaint characters, during a time of innocence as
the world is changing.
With grace and laser-focus, director Christina Rios has created a cozy setting that feels like the earnest characters are in your living room, that they are part of your daily life and live next door.
The snug space gives the top-flight cast an opportunity to gel like a community – the way an amateur theater group does, how church parishes do, and why co-workers, pub mates and newcomers connect. You feel their moods, temperaments.
Good-natured Alfie Byrne (Mark Kelley) is a bus conductor by day, with a poet’s soul, and a creative force at night. Inspired by his mentor Oscar Wilde, he fervently directs the St. Imelda’s Players, coming alive fired up by art.
While kind and outgoing, he is also forlorn, a square peg trying to fit into a round hole, as Alfie is a closeted homosexual when it was still a crime in Ireland.
At home, he lives with his surly sister Lily (Stephanie Merritt), who finds his hobbies peculiar, particularly his penchant for making foreign dishes for dinner distasteful – Bolognese sauce, curry? She has decided not to marry until he does, which adds to her exasperation. Merritt’s strong vocal prowess is displayed in “The Burden of Life” and the touching ‘Tell Me Why” in second act.
Her blustery steady beau, Carney (Michael B. Perkins), is the neighborhood butcher. Quite a ham on stage, he leads his enthusiastic castmates in the upbeat “Going Up!” – a fun song any thespian can identify with, setting the stage for the rehearsals to come.
But in an ugly character development, Carney also thinks it is his moral duty to make the local church aware they are putting on “pornography,” for he is appalled at Alfie’s choice for the next production – Wilde’s controversial “Salome,” based on the tragic Biblical characters.
Miffed that he’s not the lead, Carney riles up the ladies’ sodality while the rest of the troupe are trying to find a way to costume the seven veils and paint a realistic dummy head of John the Baptist. He wraps his thoughts around it in “Confusing Times.”
Perkins has several stand-out songs, including the dandy comical duet with Merritt, expressing outrage about Alfie’s proclivities “Books.”
Perkins also doubles as the flamboyant Wilde in dream
sequences, handling both with aplomb.
While Father Kenny (Dustin Allison) is shutting down the program, the church hall teems with cast members, and we are introduced to a quirky assortment of folks in this interesting patchwork quilt of a show.
Alfie loves these people. They’re home. They’re his “other” family.
There are the housewife diva-wannabes who flutter about him – Miss Crowe (Kay Love), Mrs. Curtin (Nancy Nigh), Mrs. Grace (Jodi Stockton) and Mrs. Patrick (Jennifer Theby-Quinn). Besides Carney, on the men’s side is widowed Baldy (Kent Coffel), Rasher Flynn (Marshall Jennings) and Ernie Lally (Dustin Allison).
All gifted singers, they are outstanding in the ensemble numbers “A Man of No Importance,” “Our Father,” “Art” and several reprises. Nigh has fun carrying out Naomi Walsby’s tap choreography in “First Rehearsal.”
Alfie has a secret crush on his co-worker, bus driver Robbie Fay (Kellen Green). He’d like to cast him as John the Baptist but Robbie’s not convinced. A lovely young woman, Adele Rice (Lindy Elliott), is new to town, and Alfie’s inspiration to tackle his mentor’s masterwork. Could she be his “Salome”?
Elliott, very impressive in this key role, sweetly sings a reprise of “Love Who You Love,” and she and Kelley have a touching song together, “Princess.”
As the handsome, conflicted Robbie, Green is terrific, trying to find his way — and has a secret too. He robustly delivers “The Streets of Dublin,” one of the show’s best numbers, and has a moving duet, “Confession” with Kelley. He shows his prowess on the violin and in a reprise of “Love Who You Love” as well.
Another highlight is Kent Coffel’s tender rendition of “The Cuddles Mary Gave,” as the character Baldy mourns his late wife.
Anchoring the whole shebang is Mark Kelley, a revelation as Alfie. He understands this sensitive soul and his pain. He imbues Alfie with so much conviction that his bittersweet songs, “Love’s Never Lost” and “Love Who You Love” are affecting and the triumph of “Welcome to the World” is well-earned.
As the dialect coach, sound designer and fight choreographer in addition to the lead, Kelley has galvanized this production. The fight is realistic thanks to assistant fight choreographer Rhiannon Skye Creighton and Perkins as fight captain.
The Irish accents are spot-on and never waiver – kudos to the cast’s commitment on getting it right. It makes a difference setting the proper tone, and the lived-in quality of the production is noteworthy.
The orchestra is very much a key part of the production, and not just because conductor Curtis Moeller doubles as a character, Carson. The cast interacts with them and vice versa, and they excel at giving an authentic Celtic sound to the score. Moeller is on keyboard, with Benjamin Ash on bass, Twinda Murry and Hanna Kroeger playing violins, Emily T. Lane on cello, Adam Rugo on guitars and Marc Strathman on flutes. They achieve a lush sound that piquantly flavors the show.
Amanda Brasher’s costume designs are a treat. She nailed the characters perfectly, from vintage frocks to the nubby knit sweaters to the assortment of hats defining personalities. Stockton’s Mrs. Grace wears a stunning ballet-slipper pink lace two-piece suit straight out of Jackie Kennedy’s closet.
The musical is a slow simmer but worth the investment as the sympathetic characters ripen. While the story spotlights a different time in another country, it illustrates the universal social awakening that “Love is Love is Love.” And being accepted for who you are is a worthy topic no matter when or where.
R-S Theatrics’ “A Man of No Importance” is to be admired for its wholehearted mounting of a little-known show, illuminated by a talented group of performers who feel like family at the finale.
R-S Theatrics presents “A Man of No Importance” Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 7 p.m., Aug. 9 – 25, at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive in Grand Center For more information or for tickets, visit www.r-stheatrics.com or call 314-252-8812.