The lives of couple dozen “unimportant” Dubliners are bestowed the significance they deserve in Torrance Theatre Company’s beautifully performed intimate-stage production of Terrence McNally, Lynn Aherns, and Stephen Flaherty’s 2002 off-Broadway musical A Man Of No Importance.
Based on a 1994 film starring Albert Finney as the titular Man Of No Importance, the award-winning Lincoln Center musical transports us back to 1964 Dublin, where middle-aged bus conductor (and “confirmed bachelor”) Alfie Byrne (Mark Torreso) moonlights as the director of an amateur theater troop specializing in the works of his idol, Oscar Wilde (not coincidentally the author of a play entitled A Woman Of No Importance).
When first we meet our protagonist, Alfie has just learned that his latest project, Wilde’s Salome, has been shut down by a disapproving Father Kenny (Gary Robbins), 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 play-within-a-play (or musical-within-a-musical) which Alfie’s company of actors 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 will be quickly divined by sophisticated 21st Century audiences, his contemporaries in 1960s Dublin—including the older sister with whom he lives—assume simply that the middle-aged bachelor just hasn’t “found the right girl.”
In actual fact, Alfie has developed an impossible crush on a handsome younger coworker, bus driver Robbie Fay (Eric Michael Parker), 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 Adele Rice (Abby Bolin), though not in the way his sister Lily (Amy Glinskas) might wish. No, Alfie’s interest in Adele is a purely professional one, the blonde 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 St. Imelda’s Players, made up of the following amateur thespians:
• William Carney (David McGee), not at all pleased about having been reduced from lead actor in last year’s The Importance Of Being Ernest to a supporting role in Salome;
• Mrs. Grace (Carla Heller), not only sinking her teeth into the role of Salome’s mother but proposing that the show’s poster feature none other than her imposing mom;
• Miss Crowe (Amanda Webb), the company’s one-time Peter Pan, who as costume designer suggests that Salome’s seven veils be replaced by seven zippers;
• Mother-of-seven Mrs. Curtin (Kim Peterson), St. Imelda’s bubbly choreographer who re-imagines Salome’s dance as a 42nd Street-style tap number;
• Resident stage manager Whitey O’Shea (Bob Baumsten), 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 (Craig Proctor), former all-Ireland gymnast and one-time Colonel Pickering in St. Imelda’s production of Pygmalion;
• Set designer Ernest Lally (Daniel Tennant), remembered by St. Imelda’s audiences for his self-described “stirring portrayal” of Mustardseed; and
• Sully O’Hara (Iyan Evans), currently unemployed and making his theater debut in Salome.
Completing the cast are Diane Dooley as pub owner Ms. Kitty, Geoff Lloyd as bar patron Brenton Beret, Gary Kresca as Inspector Carson, and Carrie Theodossin as church employee Mrs. Patrick, a woman with her own secret shame that dare not speak its name.
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 comic 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 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.
Director Glenn Kelman and scenic designer Cary Jordahl have transformed Torrance Theatre Company’s intimate 48-seat downtown venue at 1316 Cabrillo into the church social hall where Alfie and company put on their amateur productions, and in an inspired touch, the cast perform many of the scenes taking place outside the church on the stage of said social hall, a case of art imitating life imitating art.
Under Kelman’s nuanced direction, Torreso digs deep into Alfie’s heart and soul to give one of the year’s most powerful dramatic performances in a musical. Vocally, his gut-wrenching “Man In The Mirror” and soaring “Welcome To The World” earn well-justified applause and cheers.
Glinskas does touching work as Alfie’s devoted, loving, well-meaning sister, her heartbreaking rendition of “Tell Me Why” another of the evening’s vocal standouts.
Parker could not make for a more winning Robbie Fay, whether “driving” Alfie’s bus quite believably indeed, giving his conductor mate ample reason to fantasize about his “dear boy,” or singing a rousing rendition of “The Streets Of Dublin” in a vibrant, resonant tenor.
An excellent Bolin makes Adele far more than simply the girl-next-door in a lovely, a richly rendered performance highlighted by Bolin’s crystal-clear vocals.
(So absolutely splendid are these four leads that it’s a shame the production’s brief, full-cast curtain call denies them the individual bows and cheers that each deserves.)
Among featured players, McGee merits special mention for bringing to distinct life both morality judge Carney and the spirit of the man who first spoke of “the love that dare not speak its name,” for his droll duet of “Books” with Glinskas, and for his heartfelt “Confusing Times.”
I’ve seen two readings and one fully-staged production of A Man Of No Importance, but no cast has created as finely delineated supporting performances as those on the Torrance Theatre Company stage. It is not merely that each actor is a distinct “type” with his or her own unique look. As Alfie’s company of amateur thespians and assorted Dubliners, Baumsten, Evans, Heller, Kresca, Lloyd, McGee, Peterson, Proctor, Robbins, Tennant, Theodossin, and Webb give each of their characters their own back stories and inner lives. (Baumsten merits individual kudos for Whitey’s touchingly performed “The Cuddles Mary Gave.”)
Choreographer Courtney Jordon makes an impressive theatrical debut with several sparkling production numbers, including a delightful tap sequence for Mrs. Curtin’s version of Salome’s dance.
Musical director Jared Scott on keyboard is joined by Eric Brenton on violin and Andres Cabrera on flute to provide just the right live accompaniment to Aherns and Flaherty’s exquisite songs, the offstage combo given just the right amplification by sound engineer Tim Blake.
Set pieces transform Jordahl’s scenic design into Alfie and Lily’s flat, the local butcher shop, and the pub where neighborhood Dubliners meet and greet each other after sunset. Katy Streeter and SteveGDesign’s lighting design is first-rate, while Diana Mann’s terrific 1960s costumes and Michael Aldapa’s wig and hair designs give the entire cast an era-authentic look.
Gia Jordahl is producing artistic director for Torrance Theatre Company. Sasha Stewart is associate producer. Rachel Baumsten is stage manager and Cary Jordahl technical director.
In depicting a gay “everyman” that even the most conservative audience members might embrace, A Man Of No Importance demonstrates the power of art to (as director Kelman puts it in his program note) “help foster tolerance, understanding, and even break down long-help prejudices,” something the cheers that greeted Saturday’s performance made abundantly clear.
Torrance Theatre Company, 1316 Cabrillo Avenue, Torrance.
March 22, 2014