“Love who you love who you love.” That’s a repeated lyric in the musical A Man of No Importance, and if it brings to mind Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love,” I suspect it’s hardly a coincidence. Both constitute anthems of acceptance for the multitude of ways the human heart expresses its desire, and both figure as responses to homophobic violence.
Miranda made his plea for the equality of all love in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016; in A Man of No Importance, which is set in 1964, the sentiment is expressed by Alfie Burns (Allan Snyder), a Dublin bus driver with a passion for poetry and theater, particularly the poetry and theater of Oscar Wilde, and who spends his free time directing an amateur theatrical troupe, the St. Imelda’s Players, which rehearses in the local church social hall. He lives with his sister, Lily (Becki Toth), who has put her own romantic life on hold while waiting for him to find a wife. Unfortunately she is blind to all the signs that her wait is going to be a lifelong one: Alfie cooks, he enjoys foreign food, he carries around a little book of poetry and recites verses to his bus passengers, and he spends his evenings at home with her, mooning after his co-worker, the handsome and athletic Robbie (David Toole). When a new passenger, the young and lovely Miss Rice (Clementine Wurzbach), boards his bus one morning, Alfie decides to tackle Wilde’s Salome and recruit her and Robbie to play the roles of Salome and John the Baptist. Lily hopes that his interest in Miss Price is more than merely theatrical; we quickly realize that he harbors hopes that Robbie might share both his love of theater and the “love that dare not say its name.”
For a musical based on a 1994 film about a closeted homosexual in 1964 Ireland, A Man of No Importance feels surprisingly fresh and timely. The book, by playwright Terrence McNally, is structured as something of a flashback – the musical begins just after the troupe’s production of Salome has been cancelled due to its “salacious” content, and then rewinds to tell the story of the events leading up to that cancellation – and that structure achieves a bit of theatrical sleight-of-hand, making you think, at first, that the focus of the musical will be the repressive forces that shut down free artistic expression. But then – as now – those same forces also seek to put limits on the expression of love and desire; then – as now – the performing arts offer space for pushing against those limits and telling stories that open hearts and minds.
The team of Lynn Ahrens and Pittsburgh native Stephen Flaherty wrote the lyrics and music, which are steeped in the vernacular of Celtic session music. Many of the numbers open with a haunting solo Irish flute (George Hoydich), and the orchestra, led by Deana Muro, jams with the lively vibe of a Ceilidh. The large ensemble is packed with talent, with particularly strong vocal performances by Snyder, Toth, and Wurzbach, and an impressive vocal and physical performance by Toole, who pretty much parkours all over the stage in the musical’s most recognizable tune, the showstopper “The Streets of Dublin.” Snyder is a genial presence in the leading role, conveying Alfie’s suppressed yearning and pain with quiet subtlety; Toole is charismatic as the Dublin man about town; and Toth brings depth to a character who seems, at first, to fit the caricature of a provincial Irish spinster. With the help of scenic designer Johnmichael Bohach, director Robyne Parrish makes use of simple elements – a handful of umbrellas, large wooden spindles of varying dimensions, some chairs, a platform, a curtain, and a piano – to swiftly shift the scene from church hall to bus to kitchen to street.
Eleven additional ensemble members populate the world of the play with many more characters, all drawn with clarity and verve; these are the bus passengers, pub denizens, music-lovers, and troupe members whose condemnation Alfie most fears, and whose acceptance forms the core message of the play. It’s a hopeful message, in the end: a message of the power of art to make the world a more welcome place for all.