“A Man of No Importance” at Coronado Playhouse (now through August 26th) is one of those rare shows whose content transcends its performance. This show, the musical story of Alfie, a Dublin bus driver who dreams of sharing poetry and putting on Oscar Wilde’s works with his little community theatre group, also lays bare Alfie’s secret homosexuality, his desire for love, his deep loneliness and isolation as a result of having to hide his heart from those around him, and in raw and brutal scenes reveals the queer baiting, bigotry, and violence the LGBT community is all too familiar with. It is such an important story to tell that it might not matter if it was done poorly; the subject matter would win–however, this production, brilliantly directed by Manny Bejarano–elevates its beautiful source material in a collaboration between set, lighting, orchestra, and cast that is nothing short of heart-wrenching.
Barron Henzel plays the title role as the humble bus driver, Alfie, with a quiet sweetness that immediately engages the audience. His bright eyed, warm smile wins us over from his first moment on stage, and the tessitura of the vocal parts are a perfect fit in his effortless baritone; his Dublin accent (excellent dialect coaching by Vanessa Dinning, well known for her expert dialect coaching at Moonlight, Cygnet, San Diego Musical Theatre, and Lambs Players) is consistent and natural, and his gentle humility in the physical characterization of Alfie is transformative. Henzel exists in the stillness and the silences; where he pauses for breath and to feel, we ache with him. We have to love Alfie for this show to work and Henzel gives him life and warmth like the part was written specifically for him.
Alfie lives with his sister Lily (played by Jennie Connard) who brings a welcome comedic balance for the show’s heavier moments. Connard’s Lily is well-meaning but heavy handed, disliking her brother’s delicate “foreign” cooking, pushing with a dogged determination to get Alfie to find a wife. Where Henzel is soft-spoken and aristocratic in movement and articulation, Connard isn’t afraid to give us a brassier, brasher Dubliner as contrast, with a broader accent and a weariness from both battling and protecting Alfie. Her cheerful songs and funny scenes about trying and failing to understand her brother leave us laughing right up until the moment she discovers her brother’s homosexuality, leading to a cold, restrained fury in her ballad “Tell Me Why” as she struggles to come to grips with all of her dashed dreams for Alfie, ending with the most heart breaking, sobbing delivery of the final line “You must have known I’d love you all the same.”
Vander Turner as Robbie, Alfie’s bus driving partner, friend and love interest, and Kylie Young as Adele, the young pregnant woman Alfie befriends and casts as the princess in his production of Salome, are both strong supporting cast. Turner’s vocals are rich and lovely and his characterization as a gentle friend to Alfie, a passionate lover to Mrs. Parker, and a rough and tumble working man in the pubs are faceted, endearing and natural. Young’s vocals, while a bit bright (possibly as a result of the placement for the accent) are nonetheless sweet and she shows us with wonder how easily even strangers can be transformed by Alfie’s kindness. Ralph Johnson gives us a dimensional portrayal of the easy-to-despise Carney that leaves us wondering whether Carney’s motivations to shut down Alfie’s production of “Salome” are through a desire to protect Alfie, a true ultraconservative priggishness, or jealousy at the size of his own part; while his alter ego, as Oscar Wilde himself, is joyful and free.
The supporting players in the remainder of the cast are no less excellent than the leads, consistent in their dialect with some small exceptions and effortless in their characterization. BJ Robinson is wonderful as a soft-spoken, awkward props man; diminutive Sue Boland by turns fierce and determined, and shattered and uncertain when she discovers Alfie’s secret; Ferril Gardner brassy and funny and appropriately loud as the tap-dancing mother of eight; and Susan Bray in particular leaves us rolling with her unapologetic self-promotion (her facial expressions throughout the play are hilarious but a favorite moment is her revelation of the show’s promotional poster, an enormous picture of herself). The entire ensemble sings with fantastic aplomb and flawless harmony, expertly navigating the choral numbers (musical direction and piano by Kirk Valles). A stand out within the ensemble vocally is the beautiful Amanda Blair as Mrs. Patrick, who leads off the second act with “Our Father” in a high soprano that slides flawlessly into a soulful traditional Irish wail as the song transitions from high mass to celtic dance rhythms. Michael Van Allen, excellent in this director’s previous production of “Fly By Night”, has a smaller but no less quietly beautiful role as Baldy, with a gentle, heartbreaking song at his wife’s grave that inspires Alfie to open his heart and seek a love like theirs.
The skeletal set, with its richly painted and realized bones of the theatre, church, and Dublin apartment, transforms effortlessly to a myriad of settings and the director’s smart staging using a handful of chairs eliminated the need for scene changes, keeping the action moving quickly and seamlessly. The lighting (Anthony Zelig) truly became an added character to the story-telling, from lacy reflections of the Dublin streetlights to the sharp relief of the church windows to Alfie’s self-conversations in the mirror to the soft flooding of Alfie’s many “angels on the shoulder”, the voices of his conscience or his doubts. The instrumental ensemble was well-balanced, difficult in this small space with no place for an orchestral pit (smartly placed offstage behind the wing curtains, this was a rare win for balance in the Coronado space, which has of late been plagued with overloud ensemble and faulty body mics). Sound was one of the only missteps in this production, as the microphones were unbalanced to the voices and popping.
Bravo to the Coronado Playhouse for mounting this important work and telling this story with such beautiful sensitivity and grace; and congratulations to an excellent cast for their brave work. “A Man of No Importance” runs Thursdays through Sundays at Coronado Playhouse, http://coronadoplayhouse.com/event/man-no-importance/ for tickets.
Photo credit: Ken Jacques