By Joff Schmidt CBC Theatre Reviewer, CBC News
Dry Cold Productions’ A Man of No Importance runs at the Shaw Performing Arts Centre (MTYP) until May 11. (Gary Barringer )
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 todecide, but in the lead role, Arne MacPherson makes it clear there’s much going on under Alfie’s cheerful facade.
Arne MacPherson makes his singing debut as Alfie in "A Man of No Importance." (Gary Barringer)
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.
Classic 107 freelance contributor Sara Krahn gives us her review of Dry Cold Production's A Man Of No Importance. The Ahrens & Flahery musical has three more performances tonight (May 09), Saturday night (May 10) and a Sunday matinee (May 11).
Dry Cold Productions charms its audience with the power of theatre…
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Oscar Wilde’s sly words motivate the action in Dry Cold Productions’ “A Man of No Importance,” based on the 1994 Albert Finney film, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.
The story sheds light on the life of Alfie Byrne (Arne MachPherson), an unremarkable bus conductor in 1960’s Dublin. Alfie‘s life is dry and full of quiet desperation, but when he decides to put on an amateur production, at the local Catholic church, of Salome, Oscar Wilde’s sordid little play about the execution of John the Baptist, things start to get interesting.
In the opening act, Alfie’s band of colorful theatre mates- the St. Imelda’s Players – draw his attention to the drama that is his own life, where he is the star of the play. With the help of his friend Oscar Wilde, the theatre of Alfie’s life unfolds, and he is forced to confront his own secrets: his love for the young and handsome Robbie, and his shame of hiding this secret from his sister, Lily, with whom he has always lived but never confided.
With ‘A Man of No Importance,’ Dry Cold Productions offers us a charming and poignant story of the costs of love and the redemptive power of art. ‘A Man of No Importance’ isn’t a tidy play; the characters are delightful with all their sweet blemishes, but the story is distressing. In the second act, Alfie laments, “We live our lives in dreams, how sad.” Arne MachPherson gives a heartbreaking performance, effectively portraying Alfie’s character as one that does not culminate in a simple allegory. Alfie is a victim of both social discrimination and his own cowardliness; his dishonesty is just as perilous to himself and the others in his life as the bigotry of the Catholic Church.
‘A Man of No Importance’ is equal parts inspiring and amusing – perhaps the ghost of Oscar Wilde popping in occasionally to give Alfie advice is a little too cute (“The only way to get rid of temptation is too yield to it”). However, this delightful play delivers a lot of substance. In the end, it is about a man who discovers that the power of art and theatre lies in its capacity to mirror the truths of our lives. Its story offers both funny and heartbreaking moments in tribute to the power of theatre, which transforms Alfie’s life in a way that, perhaps, he could not have done on his own. ‘A Man of No Importance’ leaves its audience pleasantly inspired to seek out the theatre that exists in our own lives, daring us to open our eyes and notice the loves around us that do speak our names.
Sara Krahn is freelance contributor for Classic 107. She is also a full time music student at CMU.