Forgive me, forgive me not! Perhaps one of the most surprising things about New York City and the many accolades the populace bestows upon its wide variety of cultural activity is how terribly provincial it can be. The musical play A Man of No Importance is a fabulous case in point. Based on the 1994 film starring Albert Finney, the story of a closeted Irish Catholic bus attendant in Dublin in 1963 seemed an unlikely vehicle for a piece of musical theatre.
In the hands of writer Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Seussical) this simple little gay tale was hailed with superlatives like sentimental, delightful and heartwarming, winning the Outer Critics Circle Award for best off-Broadway musical and receiving several Drama Desk nominations. The work possesses a strong sense of mystery, playfulness and foreboding throughout a brilliant two-hour musical tour de force.
The current Acting Upstairs production running at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs rises to the challenge of this 12-character ensemble piece and delivers a first-rate show. Douglas E Hughes, as Alfie the closeted bus conductor, gives an appropriately unassuming performance. His vocals move beautifully through a score that depends upon the actor’s ability to fuse dialogue with song. Composer Flaherty likes his music to, in his words, “sweep from the spoken word into the sung word and make it feel like it’s all of a piece.” With support of lyricist Lynn Ahrens this seamless collaboration reaches its most engaging moments in songs such as “Books” where characters declaim hypocritically upon the negative effect of too much reading.
The entire ensemble shines in a parade of showstopping numbers. Patty Jamieson in the role of Alfie’s sister Lily and Bethany Jillard as Adele deliver nuanced, lilting performances that thrill the ear as they make their way through a complex score influenced by Irish and liturgical music. The onstage orchestra, led by musical director Reza Jacobs, becomes an integral part of the production and creates a warm intimate atmosphere. Kyle Blair’s Robbie as the coveted straight boy shines in powerful solo numbers while Gary Krawford’s charismatic Baldy, singing the touching ballad “The Cuddles Mary Gave,” exemplifies the strong characters at the heart of this musical.
The presence of Oscar Wilde, however, as a figure who inspires Alfie to become an amateur theatre director, injects a surprising note of provincialism into an otherwise sophisticated and layered narrative. In the end a strong sense of forgiveness surrounds the central closeted character, and audiences are left wondering what he is being forgiven for when it is obvious that some of the other characters are the ones who have made a crucial error, whether social or sexual, in judgment. As realistic as this may seem, an otherwise happy ending is marked by a slight sense of regressive sentimentality. And Wilde’s physical presence seems a little superfluous and cumbersome when he might have been merely alluded to as pivotal subtext.
Ultimately the show is about an amateur theatre troupe led by a closeted gay man. Alfie’s story becomes a vehicle for Acting Upstair’s brilliant cast to project their own characters. The age-old tale of the embattled homo who sings his way in and out of each new predicament fares well and reveals sexual provincialism for the pervasive, crowd-pleasing little ditty that is has always been.