"Blessed are the poor of imagination, for they shall inherit the cinema."
Heard early in A Man of No Importance, that bitchy observation from Dublin bus conductor Alfie Byrne (Arne MacPherson) seems a little harsh in context. After all, this 2002 musical by Terence McNally (book) Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) is an adaptation of a 1994 film starring Albert Finney.
But the comment does establish a couple of things you need to know about Alfie. He is a lover of the theatre and aspires to the cutting wit of his hero, Oscar Wilde.
In fact, mounting Wilde plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan (and one would guess A Woman of No Importance) is Alfie’s singular passion in his capacity as the director of the St. Imelda’s Players. The troupe is a church-basement theatre company consisting of a small, enthusiastic group of amateur actors. Such is their thespian ebullience (summarized in the sprightly comic tune Going Up), they all sign on to Alfie’s next project, the most scandalous of all Wilde plays, Salome.
Alas, in the Catholic enclaves of Dublin, in the year 1964, there are limits to the kind of material that could be produced. Concurrent with his fight to produce the play, Alfie is obliged to confront his own secret desires vis á vis "the love that dare not speak its name" — the Wilde-era coded reference to homosexuality.
Compounding the confusion, Alfie’s associates believe him to be smitten with the newly arrived rural lass Adele (Laura Olafson) he has chosen to play the title role. In fact, he yearns for bus driver Robbie (Matthew Fletcher), a man who has romantic secrets of his own.
Director Donna Fletcher effectively stacks the deck of this Dry Cold production with set designer Brian Perchaluk’s order-from-backstage-chaos set design, dramatic smoky lighting by Scott Henderson and music director Joseph Tritt’s elegantly minimal orchestral accompaniment of piano, reeds and cello.
Fletcher also picked a solid, even stellar, cast of Winnipeg musical theatre vets, many of whom take double roles. Of these, note Rob Herriot, playing both the compassionate stage designer/widower Baldy (with a great comic performance of the song The Cuddles Mary Gave) and, conversely, Alfie’s vicious boss Carson. That’s versatility.
As the object of Alfie’s sublimated desire, Matthew Fletcher brings a certain old-school matinée idol charm to the role of bus driver Robbie. Olafson is another standout as Adele, a young woman suffering tragic rejection who sees her crisis eerily reflected in the character she has been assigned to play.
As the title character, MacPherson has neither the voice nor range of a Broadway belter. His approach to the role is a meticulous, emotion-based portrayal of Alfie, and it works most effectively.
But even given his solid work, one of the musical’s most powerful performances has the impact of a surprise attack. It comes courtesy of Melanie Whyte as Lily, Alfie’s loyal sister who has been postponing her own marriage plans while Alfie remains single. Lily responds to the outing of her brother in the song Tell Me Why and Whyte’s performance of it was a tour de force, encompassing both betrayal and enduring love, which elicited audible sobs from Thursday night’s audience.
A Man of No Importance deserves to be a tempting entertainment option this weekend given the quality of the production and its all-too-brief run at The Forks venue. And as Wilde himself so sagely observed: "The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it."