What's It All About, Alfie?

There are so many reasons Desert Stages Theatre's production of A Man of No Importance shouldn't work: the cramped quarters of the company's Actor's Café space, into which this odd musical has been squeezed; the mostly amateur cast; an unusual, time-bending script; the curse that blights most all stage musicals based on little-known films (in this case, a 1994 Albert Finney movie of the same name) -- all reasons that make this production's success even more notable.

Set in 1960s Dublin, A Man of No Importance is an exceptionally well-crafted (and widely overlooked) gem of a musical by the team who brought us Ragtime: Terrence McNally wrote the book, Stephen Flaherty the music, and Lynn Ahrens the lyrics to 16 songs, many of them excellent. It tells the story of Alfie Byrne, a bus driver bitten by the acting bug. An avid fan of Oscar Wilde, Alfie has given his life over to staging Wilde's plays at the local Catholic church. When we meet him, he's attempting to produce a version of Salome, despite the objections of church authorities. While fighting to save his play, Alfie is forced to confront his own sexuality; his deepening attachment to his friend and colleague, Robbie Fay; and his peculiar relationship with the late Mr. Wilde.

The delights of Flaherty and Ahrens' memorable score, which mixes Irish folk songs and sacred music with show-tune ballads, is apparent even in the canned, prerecorded form in which it's presented here. And McNally's sentimental story, which appears to be taking place in two or three different realities at once, works perfectly despite this production's meager means, thanks to the charms of the principals, the affable supporting cast, and Jim Carmody's firm direction.

As Robbie Fay, Brent Graham plays a nice mix of humor, bewilderment and pain, and Carmody makes good use of Graham's lovely singing voice, especially in "Confession," a duet with Alfie. Another revelation is the small but boisterous performance of KatiBelle Collins, whom I dogged mercilessly last year for her betrayal of talent in Menopause: The Musical. Here, she proves her stage mettle in an ensemble role that finds her trading quips, singing harmonies, and performing a hilarious scarf dance, all with great style and good humor.

But the dominant personality here -- and perhaps the reason this production soars where it might falter -- is Dominic Kidwell's Alfie. Kidwell keeps his character's complex elements -- a stubborn determination to bring Wilde's work to Dublin; a frail gentility; a quick anger -- in fine balance. When the story turns dark, as it does frequently, right up to its relatively happy ending, Kidwell maintains Alfie's sweet, hopeful demeanor in song and in action. It's his shaded performance that elevates what might have been a near-miss into a superb production of which Wilde himself would have been proud.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela