Performance Riverside introduced its patrons to the musical theater genre known as the Concert Staged Reading in last night’s script-in-hand, one-performance-only “reading” of Ahrens and Flaherty’s A Man Of No Importance. And the result?

A nearly flawless production entirely deserving of its standing ovation.

For the uninitiated, a concert staged reading is a quickly rehearsed “book-in-hand” staging of a musical that for one reason or another may not justify a fully-staged production. The musical in question may be a largely forgotten Broadway chestnut or, in the case of A Man Of No Importance, a more recent show lacking the “name value” that would attract large audiences to an extended run.

As last night’s A Man Of No Importance made abundantly clear, a concert staged reading done right is no mere “reading.” For one thing, there’s not a music stand in sight. For another, actors move about the stage and interact as in a fully staged production. Take away the scripts and add more costumes and a more detailed set and you couldn’t tell the difference between a reading and the real thing.

Under Jason James’ accomplished direction, this first in a series of Performance Riverside readings gave its audience more than just a taste of what New Yorkers first saw at Lincoln Center back in 2002. Despite barest bones costumes, lighting, and scenic design, when you’ve got a cast as talented as the fourteen artists onstage last night, all that’s necessary from the audience is a bit of imagination to come close to replicating the feeling of viewing a fully staged production.

Based on a 1994 film starring Albert Finney as the titular Man Of No Importance, the  award-winning Off-Broadway musical adaptation transports us back to 1964 Dublin, where middle-aged bus conductor (and “confirmed bachelor”) Alfie Byrne (John LaLonde) moonlights as the director of an amateur theater troop specializing in the works of Oscar Wilde (not coincidentally the author of a play entitled A Woman Of No Importance).

At lights up, Alfie has just learned that his latest project, Wilde’s Salome, has been shut down by a disapproving Father Kenny (Peter Shulz), in whose church the St. Imelda’s Players have been rehearsing and where the play was to be performed.

A Man Of No Importance then becomes the musical-within-a-play which Alfie’s players put on to pay tribute to their leader’s supposedly “unimportant” life, one which over the course of two acts proves quite important indeed, at least to those who love and respect him.

Though the reason for Alfie’s singledom is one quickly divined by 21st Century audiences, his contemporaries in 1960s Dublin (including the older sister with whom he lives) assume simply that the 40something bachelor just hasn’t “found the right girl.”

In fact, Alfie has developed an impossible crush on a sexy, younger coworker, bus driver Robbie Fay (Jimmy Mulligan), an attraction that “dare not speak its name,” even in confession to Father Kenny.

As for the “right girl,” Alfie has indeed found her in lovely young Adele Rice (Ali Axelrad), though not in the way his sister Lily (Debbie Prutsman) might hope. No, Alfie’s interest in Adele is a purely professional one, the Dublin newcomer being absolutely perfect for the role of Salome, if only Alfie can convince her to let go of her stage fright and join the cast.

The St. Imelda’s Players include William Carney (John Blaylock), not at all pleased about having been reduced from lead actor in last year’s The Importance Of Being Ernest to supporting role in Salome; Mrs. Grace (Sherry Domerego), sinking her teeth into the role of Salome’s mother (and proposing that the show’s poster feature not the seductive title character but her imposing mom); Miss Crowe (Ashley Wilkinson), the company’s one-time Peter Pan, who as costume designer proposes that Salome’s seven veils be replaced by seven zippers; mother-of-seven Mrs. Curtain (Jennifer Lawson), the company’s bubbly choreographer who re-imagines Salome’s dance as a 42nd Street-style tap number; stage manager Baldy O’Shea (Jim Skousen), still recovering from the death of a wife several times his size and missing the cuddles she no longer gives him; big, booming baritone Rasher Flynn (Sam Nisbett), former all-Ireland gymnast and one-time Colonel Pickering in St. Imelda’s production of Pygmalion; Ernest Lally (Chris Duir), remembered by St. Imelda’s audiences for his self-described “stirring portrayal” of Mustardseed; and Sully O’Hara (Tyler Boyd), currently unemployed and making his theater debut in Salome. Completing the cast is Renee Jensen as church employee Mrs. Patrick, with Blaylock, Boyd Domerego, Duir, and Nisbett playing additional roles.

Like composer Stephen Flaherty’s and lyricist Lynn Ahrens’ Ragtime, Once On This Island, Seussical, My Favorite, Year, and Lucky Stiff, A Man Of No Importance is filled with one hummable song after another, this time with a decidedly Irish lilt. Ensemble numbers “Going Up,” “First Rehearsal,” and “Art” celebrate the joys of a life in the theater. Lily’s “The Burden Of Life” and “Books” (which has Lily and Carney lamenting Alfie’s inexplicable love of reading) are comedic gems. There’s not a more thrilling showstopper than Robbie’s rousing “The Streets Of Dublin.” “Princess,” “The Cuddles Mary Gave,” and “Confusing Times” are exquisite solo vehicles for Adele, Baldy, and Carney respectively. As for “Love Who You Love,” imagine the following lyrics set to one of Flaherty’s most gorgeous melodies and try not to shed a tear: “There’s no fault in lovin’. No call for shame. Everyone’s heart does exactly the same. And once ya believe that, you’ll learn how to say, ‘I love who I love who I love.’ So just go and love who ya love.”

Four-time Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally has adapted Barry Devlin’s screenplay with delicacy, power, and grace, and though Alfie may have come of age at a time when homosexuality could send a man to prison in the UK, his struggles with shame, repression, and unrequited love still resonate in these more liberated times.

Directing A Man Of No Importance for Performance Riverside, James showed noteworthy imagination in his use of the Digital Library Auditorium stage at Riverside City College. With scarcely more than a dozen straight-backed chairs and a table or two, James and company managed to give the impression of a far more fully staged production, letting the audience’s imaginations fill in the blanks and create in minds’ eyes a bus, a meeting hall, a church, a Dublin home, and the musical’s various other locales.

Performances proved remarkably polished given that the cast had only a handful of rehearsals. Most appeared scarcely to be looking at their scripts, and vocal solos seemed almost unanimously to have been committed to memory.

LaLonde’s heartfelt, gorgeously sung, three-dimensional star turn as Alfie anchored the production, highlighted by memorable renditions of a gut-wrenching “Man In The Mirror” and a soaring “Welcome To The World.”

Prutsman’s bold, vibrant, nuanced performance as Lily featured a tour-de-force solo in “Tell Me Why.” Mulligan’s virile, dynamic Robbie was another winner as was Axelrad’s exquisite work (and soprano) as Adele, and Blaylock’s as both a multifaceted Carney and the ghost of Oscar Wilde.

Boyd, Domerego, Jensen (soloing a beautiful “Our Father), Skousen, Nisbett, Schulz, and Wilkinson were each and every one terrific, with special snaps to Duir for going from nerdy as Ernest to dangerously seductive as Breton Berret and to scene-stealer Lawson for her show-stopping tap solo.

Musical director Michael Antaramian’s live piano accompaniment was so rich that the absence of a full orchestra seemed scarcely noticeable.

Additional kudos go out to Misti Soper (assistant to the director), Raymond Couture (production coordinator), Jason Graham (scenic specialist), and Matt Neves (producing artistic director).

I fell in love with A Man Of No Importance upon my first listening to the Original Cast CD and later even more so when seeing it as a Musical Theatre Guild concert staged reading in 2006. Performance Riverside’s own reading has only made me love it more. Now, isn’t it time that A Man Of No Importance got a fully-staged L.A. production?

Performance Riverside, Riverside.

–Steven Stanley
September 1, 2012

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