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There’s some poignancy in A Man of No Importance, though not as much there might be: The musical, adapted from the 1994 Albert Finney film by the creative team behind Ragtime, signals its destination as clearly as the Dublin bus its hero works aboard. So while it’s easy to like Buzz Mauro’s good, gray Alfie Byrne, it’s not exactly easy to agonize over him, and that’s clearly what book writer Terrence McNally and the composer-lyricist team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens would like you to do: They’ve given him scene after song after scene after song in which to work out the pangs involved in his passion for art—he reads poetry on the bus and stages plays down at the local church, you see, and he has a special fondness for the work of Oscar Wilde—and to come to grips with his secret crush on that bus driver (John Robert Keena’s handsome, sweet-tempered Robbie Fay).
As coming-out stories go, though, this one’s pretty familiar: Fearful man in uncomprehending society takes tentative steps toward self-awareness, only to get roughed up by the real world and emerge battered but stronger and himself at last. Some grace notes, though, attend the details of the telling, and enough of them that they’re worth discovering for yourself. Suffice it to say that although some of those songs about the joys of the amateur theatrical might seem a little on the nose—and while there’s certainly at least one too many of them—A Man of No Importance is a big-hearted show, and a gratifyingly tuneful one.
Highlights include an opening swirl of efficient, evocative scene-setting that’s on par with the sprawling prologue that launched Ragtime’s three intersecting plots, plus a scattering of numbers (notably “The Streets of Dublin” and “The Cuddles Mary Gave”) that convey a powerful sense of place and personality. And among a thickly peopled supporting cast that swells the total ensemble to a stage-filling 17, Deb Gottesman stands out from the start, first for a sharply observed bit with a parasol in that opening number and later for a loopy, loose-limbed flight of wildly inappropriate choreographic fancy—the high point of an ironic song-and-dance celebration of creative egomania that’ll be recognizable to anyone who’s ever been within 50 yards a theater, Little or otherwise.
If the show’s tidy-things-up conclusion seems a little naively upbeat—there’s an improbable lot of rallying ’round in the end—blame the source material, a sentimental film that Roger Ebert likened not to a parable but to a fable, “a story told after the fact, rearranging the details into the way they should have been.”
But try not to blame it too harshly: If Shaw eternally has his doubts about the redeemability of the human animal, the depressing headlines lately make it hard to complain if the softer touches at Keegan want to hold out a little hope.