The show at Lincoln Center with a book by Terrence McNally is actually a play with enough music by Stephen Flaherty, set to lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, to be called a musical in the chamber-ensemble sense of the word rather than a musical in the Broadway tradition.
It is based on a 1994 film starring Albert Finney about a theater-loving, middle-aged Dublin bus conductor, Alfie Byrne, who escapes his drab daytime existence by directing an amateur theatrical group in the evening. The play he has in rehearsal in the basement of a Roman Catholic church is "Salome" by Oscar Wilde, his idol.
Wilde hovers over this play like a ghost and actually appears on stage as Alfie's guardian angel, dramatically swathed in a cloak, his face shadowed by a dandy's broad-brimmed hat. The title of the show is a variant on the title of Wilde's play "A Woman of No Importance," and refers to Alfie's place in the Irish pecking order in the mid-1960s.
Like Wilde, Alfie is homosexual and loath to admit it, even to himself. In the course of the play he makes his first attempt to come out of the closet with disastrous results. It is the generous manner in which he is forgiven his transgressions by the little band of actors he has nurtured that provides the play with its deeply affecting climax.
Rees, who first earned a star on his Broadway dressing room door in 1976 the title role of "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby," has many great performances to his credit in New York and London, but the role of Alfie seems to have been written for him. He is less mature than Finney was in the role, giving it an awkwardly boyish charm that is utterly winning.
Alfie is a person who has repressed his emotions, finding release only in the joy of theatrical expression that elevates his life and gives it meaning. He shares this experience with the mixed bag of housewives and shopkeepers who make up his little troupe of players and have become, in a very real sense, his family.
Rees makes the character of Alfie sing, but his actual singing voice is an unpolished though not unpleasant instrument. He is at his best in scenes on the bus when he reads his favorite passages from Wilde to his regular riders, astonishing newcomers who have not been initiated into this ritual, including Adele, a country girl newly arrived in Dublin.
Alfie inveigles Adele to play the role of Salome and shows enough interest in her that his sister, Lily Byrne, is convinced that he has at last found a girlfriend whom he might marry. Her hopes are dashed when the play is banned by the local Catholic bishop as unworthy of being performed in a church and Lily disappears to face an unwanted pregnancy unrelated to Alfie.
Faith Prince, one of the adornments of the Broadway musical stage, is suitably muted in the role of the aging spinster sister who puts off a long-standing offer of marriage to play housekeeper to her bachelor brother. It must be hard for Prince to play a drab woman, but she does it believably and without condescension, proving herself an actress of unsuspected range.
Others who stand out in the excellent cast of 15 are Steven Pasquale as Robbie, the testosterone-loaded bus driver to whom Alfie is attracted, Jarlath Conroy as well-meaning priest, Ronn Carrol as Baldy, an outspoken widower, and Jessica Molaskey, a flirtatious widow. Director Joe Mantello has put all his Dubliners through their paces with natural grace that reflects the poetry in their Irish souls.
Loy Arcenas has designed an all-purpose set centered on a makeshift basement stage, behind which a seven-member band performs, nicely lit by Donald Holder. Jane Greenwood's costumes evoke both the era and Alfie's workaday world with an eye to authenticity. Flaherty's score has a pop charm but is mostly forgettable, except for Alfie's final solo, "Welcome to the World," whereas Ahrens' lyrics are deft and occasionally clever.