“Man of No Importance” is anything but…
KALAMAZOO, Mich.–From the moment one enters the Little Theatre before Farmers Alley’s A Man of No Importance begins, one is transported to 1960s Dublin. Black and white moving pictures of buses and automobiles traversing O’Connell Street from that time are projected onto the stage while a lone musician plays lilting tunes on a small accordion.
In the nearly three-hour show that follows, such attention to detail in terms of design thoroughly effect the time and place, perhaps the most crucial character in this humble musical adaptation of the 1994 Albert Finney film from award-winning playwright Terrence McNally and music-and-lyric team Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, most noted for creating Ragtime. This, as Oscar Wilde might have said, is its “chief charm.”
The set’s proscenium within a proscenium beautifully sets up the play within a play story that focuses on the life of Alfie Byrne, an over-the-hill working-class anti hero cum aesthete, a bus conductor who recites poetry to his passengers by day and directs the St. Imelda players, his passengers turned actors, by night. He inspires them to pursue lives dedicated to “art,” though like the rest of Ireland in 1964, they’re barely making ends meet while living with the oppressive history of English rule and the repressive rule of the Catholic Church.
When Alfie decides to put up his hero Oscar Wilde’s notorious play, Salome, skirting its risqué if not blasphemous content, it instigates the revelation of his internal struggle to deny “the love that dare not speak its name.” He cannot bring himself to confess his sexual urges to his priest, so he confides in the spirit of Oscar Wilde; and instead of offering Hail Marys as an act of contrition, Wilde suggests “the way to eliminate temptation is to give in.” This advice leads to predictable consequences and no real resolution except the commitment to remain true to oneself and art.
Though this is the backdrop for A Man of No Importance, it is neither political nor dark. It’s touching and funny, only a little bit Wildean and a whole lot sentimental and sweet.
Its musical numbers are mostly understated, lovely, and mildly influenced by traditional Irish music. A cast of capable singers together with a terrific orchestra bring the score to life beautifully under Catherine A. Walker’s music direction.
The success of this show ultimately rests on Alfie Byrne, and Dirk Lumbard is infinitely likable and convincing in this role. He is, at turns, shy and stuttering and boldly confident, embodying the various and seemingly conflicting roles he must play. This theme was perhaps the defining one of Wilde’s life and work, and though it’s somewhat subtle in this script, Lumbard makes it come alive, endearing himself and his lot in life to the audience.
Also excellent, and hugely important to the show, is Jeremy Koch as Robbie, the handsome bus driver, the fantasy Bosie to Lumbard’s Wilde. Koch and Lumbard come closest to consistently pulling off Northside Dublin accents, and they create together a convincing and genuinely loving friendship. “The Streets of Dublin” and its adjacent pub scene is the most compelling of the show, thanks in large part, to Koch and Lumbard’s performances.
Denene Mulay Koch with her pretty voice makes for a sweet Irish Catholic house marm and surrogate wife and mother to Alfie as his sister Lily. Michael Ehlers is a strong Carney, the butcher and boyfriend to Lily and St. Imelda Players star. Ehlers and Koch have good chemistry, though the lack of development in these two characters is among the script’s major weaknesses.
Overall it’s an excellently executed vision of an understated musical making its regional premier. Director Kathy Mulay teases out the small moments with finesse and milks big ensemble numbers for all they’re worth with solid actors, choreography, and top notch design elements.
Justin Thomas’s scenic and light design are the star of this show, and work marvelously with Lissa Hartridge’s costumes to make the muted gloom of everyday life real with little rare emergences of brightness and color. The contrasts effectively show visually what the script often keeps hidden, and in this, one could say it achieves that elusive prize Alfie’s always after: Art.