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Therapy, stage right

Musical a love letter to the transformative power theatre has for many who participate in it

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Arne MacPherson, centre, plays theatre-loving bus conductor Alfie Byrne.


Arne MacPherson, centre, plays theatre-loving bus conductor Alfie Byrne.

To the casual arts aficionado, theatre can be an escape, an entertaining diversion, or a safe stimulant.

But to those behind and in front of the curtain, theatre is so much more -- a lifeline, a safe house, and in some circumstances, a forum of self-expression where no other forms of expression are permitted.

Theatre holds a mirror to itself in A Man of No Importance, Dry Cold Productions' musical based on a 1994 film of the same name starring Albert Finney.

Set in Dublin in 1964, it is the story of bus conductor Alfie Byrne, a cautiously closeted gent whose passions include poetry, Oscar Wilde and his amateur theatre company.

Those elements combine when Alfie mounts an amateur production of Wilde's play Salome, initiating a controversy with Dublin's religious arbiters over "the love that dare not speak its name."

Donna Fletcher, Dry Cold's co-founder and the musical's director, says she first discovered the 2002 musical adaptation by Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime) via a burned CD copy of the cast recording sent from a friend in Toronto.

"I listened to it and I loved it," she says. "A young friend of mine has a company in Toronto and they produced it out there, and I just thought: This will be perfect for us.

"So I pulled out the cast recording again and I listened to it until I had to go buy my own."

Fletcher says that even in a contemporary cultural climate where gay marriage is legal, the story of Alfie Byrne's self-discovery through the medium of drama has resonance, especially for gay kids who are still finding acceptance in the realm of theatre.

"I do some teaching at both universities, and I have a lot of students who, in finding a place in theatre or dance or in music, they're able to find their true, authentic selves and come out and be who they need to be," she says. "I think that's an incredibly relevant theme and it's still happening."

Fletcher considers the musical to be "a love letter to theatre and those who produce theatre, because it's so much about the transformative power that it has."

"Every one of these characters in the play is missing something in their life. The theatre helps to elevate them to their larger potential. It helps to give them something to fill their mundane lives."

For the crucial role of Alfie, Fletcher cast Winnipeg stage mainstay Arne MacPherson in his first lead role in a musical. He appears opposite an impressive array of seasoned musical theatre vets, including Carson Nattrass, Brenda Gorlick, Matthew Fletcher and Melanie Whyte.

"When we decided to do the show, I knew we wanted to go with someone who had incredibly strong acting chops," Fletcher says of MacPherson. "The role of Alfie, even if it is a sung role, it's not sung in the style of a lot of musical theatre. It's not a Daddy Warbucks bravura performance; it's much more understated. He is a counter to all the big musical-theatre characters and so his singing tends to be much more thoughtful and much more internal and really, for me, feels like speech elevated to music."

The casting may have also been appropriate because it is doubtful anyone in town is as steeped in theatre culture as MacPherson, who comes to the production having just directed the PTE season-closer Harvest and working as a text coach for the upcoming Shakespeare in the Ruins production of A Comedy of Errors. (Even at home, MacPherson is among fellow actors: partner Debbie Patterson and their two children are all performers.)

"The character I play is ironically called the 'man of no importance' and part of what makes him unimportant is that he doesn't allow himself to fully express himself," MacPherson says. "He is sublimating his homosexual urges because in the world he lives in -- Roman Catholic, 1960s Ireland -- that simply wasn't an option.

"But during the course of the play, it becomes clear that he's very important in the lives of a lot of people," MacPherson says. "That's what I love about this play. It's such a wonderful expression of the transformative power of theatre."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2014 C7

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