In the midst of the busy fall theater season, Classic Stage Company’s triumphant Off-Broadway revival of the underrated 2002 chamber musical “A Man of No Importance,” starring Jim Parsons and directed by John Doyle, comes as a most welcome and most unexpected surprise.
Based on a 1994 Albert Finney film of the same name, the musical focuses on Alfie Byrne (Parsons), a single, sensitive, and soft-spoken bus conductor in 1964 Dublin, who leads a church-sponsored theater group and decides to present Oscar Wilde’s scandalous biblical tragedy “Salome,” setting off a tumultuous chain of events for himself and his community.
Up until now, I have not been much of a fan of the musical, which has an Irish-flavored score by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens (the team behind “Once On This Island,” “Ragtime,” and “Seussical”) and a book by the late Terrence McNally.
Some of the songs (especially those for the lead character, which were written with a non-singing actor in mind) are underwhelming, and the plot can feel dated and sentimental. However, it does contain an Irish rock number that ranks among Ahrens and Flaherty’s greatest hits (“The Streets of Dublin”) and some tender ballads. It also celebrates the ability of non-professionals to enrich their lives and build community by making art.
The current staging marks a swan song and victory lap for Doyle, who recently resigned as Classic Stage’s artistic director. It makes exceptional use of Doyle’s defining aesthetics (actors doubling as musicians, self-conscious storytelling mode, seamless flow between song and dialogue, communal environment).
Although Doyle gained prominence by directing well-known Sondheim musicals, his best revivals have been of musicals that were less revered and were made stronger and fresher through his tendency to re-envision by cutting-down, including “The Color Purple,” “Allegro,” and “Carmen Jones.” While I regretfully did not see the original Off-Broadway production of “A Man of No Importance” at Lincoln Center (which starred the late Roger Rees), I find it hard to believe that it was better than this.
Parsons, who became famous on the TV sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” and has done some excellent work on the New York stage over the past decade in plays such as “Harvey” and “The Boys in the Band,” makes for a genuine and affectionate Alfie. He is joined by an outstanding supporting cast that includes Mare Winningham, A.J. Shively, Shereen Ahmed, and Mary Beth Peil.
While the intermission-less production is more than worthy of a Broadway transfer, I can’t help but feel that a great deal of its strength comes from its expert use of its intimate space, which has a three-quarter seating arrangement, evokes an Irish pub, and incorporates actors roaming the aisles. It also contains perhaps the best sound quality and control I have ever heard for a live musical in a small theater.
Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., classicstage.org. Through Dec. 18.