The year is 1964 and the setting Dublin for A Man of No Importance, a gentle, high-spirited musical currently showing at the Arvada Center. Inspired by Oscar Wilde, bus conductor Alfie Byrne longs to devote his life to art. His plans for a production of The Importance of Being Earnest have come to nothing, but now he has ideas for another show: Wilde’s Salome, a one-act play that’s close to a straightforward ode to sensuality. His actors will be the motley group of passengers he encounters every day on his bus, his theater St. Imelda’s Church. Absorbed in his ideas, mesmerized by such phrases as “like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver,” Alfie somehow remains innocently unaware of just how scandalous this piece about a prostitute’s seductive dance and the beheading of John the Baptist was in Victorian England, and how equally scandalous it is likely to prove in his own religion-driven country. There may be places — Italy, for example — where Catholicism is practiced in a world of color, light, art and music, but the Irish version has always tended to be dour. Not to mention deeply repressive.
Alfie’s unmarried sister, Lily, longs to begin married life with Carney, the butcher who’s courting her, but she can’t do it until her middle-aged brother is safely married off. He cooks for them both; they eat together. When he tells her one evening about Adele, a charming young woman who boarded his bus that day for the first time, she’s hopeful. But it turns out that Alfie wants Adele to be his Salome, not a romantic partner. His interest there lies in handsome bus driver Robbie. Deeply torn by his own feelings, Alfie periodically conjures the imposing spirit of Oscar Wilde, who encourages him in his artistic aspirations and advises that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.
When the powers-that-be learn of his plans for Salome, they quickly shut down all of Alfie’s theatrical hopes. When he tries yielding to temptation, the results are disastrous. And it turns out that Adele has a secret as dangerous in this puritanical world as Alfie’s own. By now the mood of the evening is sadder and darker, as Alfie finds himself ostracized and defeated. Wilde, of course, suffered acutely for his sexuality, ultimately losing everything for it: his career, his wife and children and, indirectly, his life.
Not everything about the evening is serious. The first act is lighthearted, and there are moments of wonderfully impish humor, as when the cast meets to rehearse Salome and they all show Alfie the plans they’ve made: The seven veils are represented by a row of brightly colored zippers; a Mrs. Curtin — hilariously played by Sharon Kay White — has developed a cheesy tap number to serve as Salome’s dance.
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This is a small-scale musical based on a movie starring Albert Finney, and it’s an unusual and welcome pick for the Arvada Center, which tends to go big with its musicals. A Man of No Importance has a thoughtful plot and carries an undercurrent of sincere feeling. Director Rod Lansberry had the inspired idea of bringing in the local band Colcannon to serve as his orchestra. The group’s five musicians are on stage throughout the performance, and with their authentic sound and infectious rhythms, they do the Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty songs proud — whether those songs are joyous, touching or danceable. The band also works well with the cast’s fine singers, and often the effect is of an informal, warm-spirited Irish crack — those convivial party evenings where all the guests contribute to the entertainment with a song or story, a poem or piano piece.
Kevin Loreque is a sympathetic, self-effacing Alfie, Peter Gosik a strong-voiced, sexy Robbie, and Emily Van Fleet charming as Adele. The leads are supported by a group of interesting character actors who all work well together. And when Colin Alexander sings “The Cuddles Mary Gave” — stage manager Baldy’s tribute at the grave of his wife — in a gorgeous, supple tenor, it’s a showstopper.
A Man of No Importance, presented by the Arvada Center through May 17, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.