By Barry Reszel
There’s an understated brilliance emanating from The Broadway these days as Pride Films & Plays masterfully stages the seldom-produced, aptly named Flaherty & Ahrens musical, A Man of No Importance.
Tenderly directed by Jeff Award-winning actor Donterrio Johnson, Chicagoland’s Billy Porter, this is a melancholy character study set to a gorgeous score that deserved much greater attention and acclaim than it received in a three-month off-Broadway run in 2002. Johnson has cast this show to absolute perfection, with each member adding a uniquely interesting character to the mix of a church theatre troupe in 1964 Dublin.
They are gathered around middle-aged Alfie Byrne, a bus ticket agent by day and community theatre director by night, who secretly loves the bus driver with whom he works, Robbie Fay. Given the lack of understanding and acceptance of the gay culture, Alfie shares his secret only via imaginary conversations with Oscar Wilde, his literary hero. In an effort to explore the depths of emotional feelings in a place of acceptance, Alfie becomes determined to stage a version of the Wilde play Salome, whose female protagonist requests the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter as a reward for dancing the erotic dance of the seven veils. A full plot synopsis of musical, adapted by Terrence McNally from the Albert Finney novel, is here.
Here’s hoping this exquisite Chicago run by Johnson’s uber-talented cast will bring deserved exposure to this hidden gem. Composer Stephen Flaherty and collaborating lyricist Lynn Ahrens are known for their acclaimed Broadway hits Ragtime, Once On This Island, Seussical and Anastasia. But their gorgeous work in this lovely, understated show, focused on self-truth and acceptance, has gone largely unnoticed, even among the community theatre sect in which it’s set. The score is a melange of lovely ballads and Irish ditties, many reminiscent of the songwriting duo’s other, more decorated, works. “Going Up,” “The Streets of Dublin,” “Love Who You Love,” “Welcome to the World” and the title song are this reviewer’s top five, but all are performed extraordinarily well.
Indeed, this is among the finest shows being performed on a Chicagoland stage. Featuring a cast of wonderful actor-singers on Evan Frank‘s interesting unit set and punctuated with memorable costuming by Bob Kuhn and lighting by Mike McShane, this ensemble is at its very est performing soaring harmonies to the instrumentation of Robert Ollis’ orchestra.
Ryan Lanning is truly extraordinary as the melancholy Alfie, allowing his anguished facial expressions and tender smiles to earn audiences’ sympathies for this authentic human. Talented Nick Arceo portrays Alfie’s secret love Robbie Fay, with dulcet voice and earnest friendliness. Sarah Beth Tanner is perfect as Alfie’s sister Lily whose “Tell Me Why” solo is a true takeaway. And the stunning Ciera Dawn as reluctant Salome, Adele Rice, is truly resplendent.
Tommy Bullington, Christopher Davis and Ian Rigg are additional standouts in their respective roles. But make no mistake, the strength of this show lies in the precisely-directed ensemble of individuals basking in Johnson’s effectively well-thought out tableaus. Its members also include Ryan Armstrong, Amanda Giles, Jessica Lauren Fisher, Kimberly Lawson, Kevin O’Connell, Orlando Shelly, Tiffany T. Taylor and Thomas Tong.
This is a show that remains in the heart for days after taking it in, making PRIDE’s exceptionally well-performed version of A Man of No Importance quite significant, indeed. Johnson and Lanning should be Jeff-nominated.
Pride Films & Plays Presents “A Man of No Importance” though Nov. 17 at the Broadway Theatre, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.