Set in Dublin in 1964, A Man of No Importance may seem like a musical separated from a Manitoba audience by many factors - time, space, and social values. But its beautifully human story, and a sterling lead performance, make Dry Cold’s production feel both relatable and relevant.
Based on the movie of the same name (which starred Albert Finney in the lead), the 2002 musical centres around Alfie Byrne - a mild-mannered Dublin bus conductor whose real passions in life are directing his church’s amateur theatre group, and losing himself in the works of Oscar Wilde.
Alfie shares much in common with Wilde, besides a love of the spoken word - Alfie is, like Wilde, homosexual. And while Wilde went to prison for his sexual orientation, Alfie lives in a more metaphorical prison, unable to tell any of his friends, family, or congregation about “the love which dare not speak its name.”
The play within the play which Alfie struggles to mount with his increasingly fragmented theatre company is Wilde’s Salome - a play controversial enough that it wasn’t performed in England until nearly 40 years after it was written. There are parallels there too with Alfie’s life - while he sees the beauty in Wilde’s work, others see only the church’s declaration that the play is “immodest” and “sinful.”
And so the musical’s themes of truth versus artifice, in love and in art, are established. Much of this comes down to a quiet, internal conflict in Alfie - and indeed, Donna Fletcher boldly starts her admirable production with an uncomfortably long silence, as Alfie sits onstage lost in contemplation. What precisely he’s contemplating is left to the audience to
decide, but in the lead role, Arne MacPherson makes it clear there’s much going on under Alfie’s cheerful facade.
MacPherson is well known for his dramatic roles, but makes his musical theatre debut here. His singing voice is not of the calibre of the rest of the cast - which would normally be a deal-breaker for the lead in a musical, but it is not in this case. It’s a testament to how heartbreakingly honest and nuanced his turn as Alfie is - and in fact, the slight unsteadiness in his voice gives his Alfie a likeable, everyman-ish charm.
He’s backed by a twelve-member supporting cast, including familiar local faces like Mariam Bernstein, Brenda Gorlick, Carson Nattrass, and Cory Wojcik, and a three-person live band. All turn in polished performances, but the sprawling cast in Terrence McNally’s book means that only Alfie is much of a fleshed out character.
A Man of No Importance sprawls in other ways, too - with a running time of 160 minutes (with intermission), it does feel overlong, particularly in the second act. But Stephen Flaherty’s music (with clever lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) is consistently engaging. The melodies are not necessarily the kind of earworms you’ll hum on the way out, but they are lyrical and stirring.
It all amounts to a piece that has more heft than many pieces of musical theatre - though it still offers plenty of laughs along the way, and finishes with a conclusion that’s hopeful, if a bit too pat.
A Man of No Importance has something important to say about love and art - and musical theatre fans shouldn’t overlook it.
Dry Cold Productions’ A Man of No Importance runs at the Shaw Performing Arts Centre (MTYP) until May 11.