Gently charming chamber musical A Man of No Importance enjoys a starry revival for its second New York outing.
In the 2002 follow-up to their epic musical masterpiece Ragtime, composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and book writer Terrence McNally operate on a far more intimate scale with A Man of No Importance, which was based upon the 1994 film. Man in Chair was fortunate enough to attend a performance of the premiere season, which starred dear departed Roger Rees as bus conductor Alfie Byrne, with Faith Prince as his loving sister Lily and a young Stephen Pasquale as attractive bus driver Robbie Fay.
Further reduced to a single act and slightly smaller cast, A Man of No Importance nonetheless retains its rather leisurely pace; happily the show’s tender appeal also remains. It must be noted that it is a shame that memorably amusing company number “Art” has been jettisoned in this more compact version.
Renowned director John Doyle, who is the outgoing artistic director of Classic Stage Company, helms a tight, if somewhat abstract, staging. Conceived as a memory play, the company members of the St. Imelda
Staunton Players reenact the rocky road of their challenging production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. While Alfie’s coming-out story may now seem somewhat twee, the idea of a work of art being almost instantly subject to cancel culture is certainly timely.
As is one of Doyle’s trademarks, many of the cast carry musical instruments, impressively supplementing the playing of music director Caleb Hoyer and three fellow band members, who are positioned overhead. In a striking moment, a piano accordion creates a constricted wheezing sound when Alfie finds himself in a tense, sexually charged situation.
Through years of conditioning, musical theatre aficionados are attuned to expect nothing less than a romantic happy ending. A Man of No Importance very satisfyingly turns this on its head, replacing a rosy romantic resolution with a deeply affecting focus upon the power and meaning of community acceptance and forgiveness.
The casting of Jim Parsons as Alfie automatically brings attention to this revival. An established stage performer, Parsons’ boyish appearance colours the future of Alfie, in that his relative youth suggests that the freshly outed man has time to explore the implications of his sexuality. Despite playing the lead role, Parsons draws no undue attention to himself, proving to be a generous ensemble performer.
As Lily, Mare Winningham movingly conveys the gnawing conflict of a sister devoted to her brother and yet torn by her devotion to her faith. A sweetly expressive singer, Winningham tugs at the heartstrings in 11o’clock ballad “Tell Me Why.”
Mary Beth Peil is a delight to watch as Mrs Grace, a modest woman who innocently swells with importance during play rehearsals. Peil entertainingly contrasts this main role with a featured sequence as a boisterous publican.
A. J. Shively proves one to watch as bus driver Robbie, deftly balancing the sensitive and the masculine angles of Robbie and expertly nailing the musical’s one rousing showstopper “The Streets of Dublin.”
A Man of No Importance plays at Classic Stage Company, New York.
The A Man of No Importance program can be read online.
Photos: Julieta Cervantes