A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE - Classic Stage Company
At the Classic Stage Company (CSC), New York’s leading Off-Broadway venue for the revival of both dramatic and musical classics old and new, comes a most charming version of “A Man of No Importance”. This small gem of a musical is so sensitively staged and superbly cast, it modestly reveals all of its little perfections.
Based on the 1994 movie, starring Albert Finney, it tells the tale of closeted, gay bus conductor Alfie Byrne in 1960s Dublin, who fills his lonely bachelor life - he lives with his older sister - and humdrum daily routine by directing the parish’s amateur theatre group. Fixated with Oscar Wilde, his secret alter ego, Alfie runs into trouble by staging the scandalous “Salome”. Alfie harbors a crush on Robbie, the driver on his bus route, and develops a special relationship with a young woman, Adele, who unexpectedly arrives in the neighborhood and whom he casts as “Salome.”. A violent event eventually forces him to accept his sexuality. .
It seems like a slight, if not unoriginal tale, but, in the hands of CSC director John Doyle, the story unfolds with a quiet reality, aspired to in musical theater but seldom realized as effectively. The musical, first staged in 2002 at Lincoln Center Theatre, is a later collaboration by multi-Tony winners Terrence McNally (1938 - 2020) who adapted the screenplay, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, who all teamed up in 1996 for the landmark musical “Ragtime” and then in 2016 for “Anastasia”.
Director Doyle, who also designed the production, utilizes CSC’s thrust stage most effectively. Old wooden folding chairs set various scenes as bus seats, parlor chats and rehearsal halls, Upstage, as backdrop, is a montage of wall mirrors and Roman Catholic liturgical statues, suggesting private spaces of reflection, in Alfred’s home and church.
Flaherty’s score, a wonderful blend of folk and ballad with Celtic accent, is played by four band members off stage and, in Doyle’s signature style, also by four members of the cast on stage, with banjo, guitar, fiddle and violin. (Doyle’s integration of instruments played by characters made its mark with his innovative productions of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” on Broadway in 2005 and 2006.)
The real strength of CSC’s presentation of “A Man of No Importance” is its impeccable casting - 13 actors each of whom brings individual presence to their part, but who together, under Doyle’s apt direction, render a perfectly balanced ensemble. Jim Parsons, of television fame for “The Big Bang Theory” and on Broadway for the revival of “The Boys in the Band”, nails the character of Alfie - prickly but insecure, diffident but needy. Shereen Ahmed, who played Eliza in the national tour of Lincoln Center’s “My Fair Lady”, brings an ideal soprano voice to the role of the mysterious Adele. A. J. Shively, who wowed audiences with his dance in the short-lived “Paradise Square” recently on Broadway, plays Robbie, the boy-next-door bus driver, to a tee. (He also doubles as an on-stage tambourinist.) Special kudos to Mare Winningham, most recently of “Girl of the North Country”, as Alfie’s sister Lily Byrne and veteran Mary Beth Piel as Mrs. Grace, an outspoken fuddy-duddy in the amateur theater company.
Of the more than dozen songs the tuneful ensemble title number nicely opens the show and is reprised near the end. Most poignant is the ballad “Love Who You Love’ first sung by Alfie and later reprised by Adele.
Your common sense tells ya best not begin
But your fool heart cannot help plungin in
And nothing and no one can stand in your way
You just have to love who you love
Therein lies the universal and timeless appeal of this gem of a musical.