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Dublin carol
A music Man of No Importance
A Man of No Importance
Book by Terrence McNally. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Based on the movie A Man of No Importance, written by Barry Devlin. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Music direction by Jeanne Munroe. Choreography by David Connolly. Set by Eric Levenson. Lighting by Karen Perlow. Costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley. Sound by Matt Griffin. With Sean McGuirk, Jim Ansart, Sarah deLima, Carmel O’Reilly, Kerry A. Dowling, Billy Meleady, Christopher Hagberg, Naomi Gurt Lind, Eric Hamel, Colin Israel, Nancy E. Carroll, Dale Place, Miguel Cervantes, and Sara Chase. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company and Súgán Theatre Company at the Boston Center for the Arts through November 9.

The 1994 film A Man of No Importance would seem an unlikely basis for a musical. Set in 1964 Dublin, it’s about a closeted-gay bus conductor (played by Albert Finney) and Oscar Wilde aficionado struggling toward articulating the love that dares not speak its name. Well, here it’s the love that dares not sing its name, in a flawed but charming chamber musical by the Ragtime team of librettist Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty, and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. The show, which won the 2002 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off- Broadway Musical, tells the story of poetry-spouting bus-ticket-taker and amateur theater director Alfie Byrne in flashback — and in the style of an amateur theatrical, staged in the church parish hall by the St. Imelda’s Players, a not-ready-for-prime-time organization that learns to embrace its fallen leader even as, with a little epigrammatic encouragement from the ghost of Oscar Wilde, he learns to embrace himself.

The New England premiere of the show is a first-time collaboration between SpeakEasy Stage Company, which has a track record with unusual musicals, and Súgán Theatre Company, for which Dublin is familiar turf. SpeakEasy honcho Paul Daigneault directs, with a cadre of church pews scooted about to form Alfie’s bus, the rehearsal hall, or a Dublin lane, while Súgán head Carmel O’Reilly, gotten up in nerdy period glasses on which you could cut yourself, is part of the ensemble. O’Reilly’s character’s big moment comes when, as crackpot costume designer of Byrne’s ill-advised production of Wilde’s Salome, she suggests that the famed seven veils be removed with the aid of seven zippers.

Musicals love a showbiz setting, and A Man of No Importance has fun sending up the St. Imelda’s Players, especially in the Waiting for Guffman-esque ensemble number "Art," which features, in addition to the zippers and a collapsed cake with dreadlocks standing in for the head of John the Baptist, an enthused choreographer’s demo-rendition of Salome’s erotic turn as a tap number. But at heart, the musical is a celebration of its working-class thespians and their anonymous leader, artistic even at his day job, where he regales commuters with lilting renditions of "The Harlot’s House" and other Wildeana, all the while mooning at Robbie, the young bus driver he calls "Bosie" in homage to Wilde’s boy toy (and Salome translator), Lord Alfred Douglas. The main trouble with the show, which Sean McGuirk’s wan if well-sung portrayal of Alfie doesn’t help, is that it devotes two and a half hours (the film runs 99 minutes) to the cultivation of a wallflower, and the hesitancy of the main character extends to the music, which sometimes feels as hemmed-in as Alfie.

This is not to say the Flaherty/Ahrens score is without appeal. Intelligent, warm, laced with melancholy and ethnic allusion and buoyed up by a couple of cute novelty numbers, it mixes everything from Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen to Jule Styne and Gilbert & Sullivan into its reedy Celtic tootling. But many of the songs, including the title tune, are recitative that only occasionally breaks into melody. When a full-blown song, bus driver Robbie’s catchy paean to "The Streets of Dublin," finally cuts loose, you’re exhilarated — especially as it’s emanating from the talented and charismatic Miguel Cervantes. Yes, the Bat Boy himself, relieved of his Spock ears and Dracula fangs and permitted to play his part without any antisocial biting or hanging upside down.

The production’s other delight is Nancy E. Carroll, who brings a deadpan terseness to Alfie’s spinster sister Lily (Brenda Fricker in the film), suspicious of everything from spaghetti to literature and dying to get her middle-aged brother married so she can wed the butcher next door, who is Alfie’s leading man until his actor’s vanity gives way to his Roman Catholic shock at Salome. Carroll captures both the furtive, repressive busybody and, ultimately, the tender sis in Lily. And with Dale Place as the sanctimonious meat man, she brings a hilariously tight-lipped condemnatory zeal to the encomium to censorship, "Books." Billy Meleady, as Alfie’s retired-publican stage manager Baldy O’Shea (who blatantly laughs at the egregious thespian efforts at St. Imelda’s), hasn’t much voice, but he imbues the character’s plaintive ode to his big, dead wife, "The Cuddles Mary Gave," with roguish sweetness. It made me wish for a musical based on The Weir.

Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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