BHP Charms With Darkly Comic and Touching ‘A Man of No Importance’ (4.5 Stars)
by Mike Hoban
A Man of No Importance - Based on the film: A Man of No Importance. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; Music by Stephen Flaherty; Book by Terrence McNally; Directed by Daniel Morris; Musical Direction by Meghan MacFadden. Presented by Bad Habit Productions at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts at 527 Tremont St., Boston through August 28, 2016. See www.badhabitproductions.org.
There's a great quote from Oscar Wilde in A Man of No Importance, the utterly charming musical adaptation of the film of the same name now being mounted by Bad Habit Productions at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. As Alfie Byrne - a middle-aged bus porter in 1964 Dublin who can no longer repress the realization that he is a gay man - debates whether or not he should engage in a tryst with a roguish younger man he met at the pub, the spirit of Wilde advises him, "Sins of the body are nothing...Sins of the soul alone are shameful." And it is the sin of not being true to oneself that lies at the heart of this wonderfully told and darkly funny Irish story. Aided by a witty and heartfelt score and propelled by an almost magical five-piece band, Bad Habit Productions creates the rarest of productions - a musical where the book and the music come together as a seamless whole.
The story begins in the present, where Alfie is told by the parish priest at St. Imelda's that not only has his theater troupe's production of Salome been cancelled - because it has been judged "a dirty play" by the parish elders - but that the St. Imelda Players have been barred from ever performing there again. This sends Alfie reeling into flashback mode, and the life-changing events leading up to his present dilemma unfold before us as if it were a play.
The players in Alfie's theater group are (conveniently) also the passengers on his bus route every morning, and when Adele, a troubled but pretty young woman who joins the regulars one day, Alfie convinces her to play the title role in his group's production of Salome. An elated Alfie tells his sister Lily (whom he lives with) that he's found a girl, and she rejoices and bursts into song with the joyous "Burden of Life" - until he tells her that it's not romance, just an actress for the play that he's found, and she becomes furious. With good reason, as she has been delaying marriage to her longtime suitor Mr. Carney until Alfie finds the "right girl". The right one for Alfie turns out to be Robbie, the handsome bus driver on his route whom he finally admits to himself that he loves in the cathartic "Man in the Mirror".
Alfie and the Adele are both harboring "dark" secrets, or at least ones considered dark by the standards of 1964 Irish society, five years before Stonewall and well before single motherhood was acceptable in uber-Catholic Ireland. So when Adele tells Alfie "people can be harsh judges," he makes a cryptic attempt to come out to her, but she doesn't understand, and as he sings the moving "Love Who You Love" to comfort her, he begins to gain resolve about his own situation. At the urging of his spirit guide Wilde, Alfie does gather the courage to act on his feelings - with not so predictable results.
A Man of No Importance retains the feel of an indie film (which it is drawn from), and the musical numbers never feel clumsily inserted as they often do when movies are adapted into musicals. Instead, the songs do much to advance the plot, through Lynn Ahrens alternately poignant and clever lyrics, and the backing music provided by the exceptional band (keyboards, cello, flute, guitar, and violin under Meghan MacFadden's skilled direction) deftly establishes the mood of the production.
There are some terrific performances in this show, beginning with Nick Magierowski-Howe, who is exceptional in the role of Alfie - both as a vocalist and in his ability to convey the pain of his "love that dare not speak its name". Mary O'Donnell fully inhabits her character as the frustrated Lily, as does Kevin Fennessy as the crusty Carney (as well as in a dual role as Wilde), and the ensemble is uniformly solid.
This is a musical with a solid pedigree. It won the 2003 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, and the creative team of Terrence McNally (book), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), also won Tony Awards for Ragtime. Bad Habit makes this infrequently produced work really come to life. See it.