Elevating the average Alfie

March 14, 2004.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Tod Petersen relished the chance to play “A Man of No Importance.”

When actor Tod Petersen first listened to the CD of “A Man of No Importance,” he immediately identified with Alfie, the central character in the musical that opens Saturday in a Theatre Latte Da production at the Loring Playhouse.

“You live with your sister and don’t get out,” the lyrics said to Petersen, who lives in Minneapolis with his sister and apparently—although he didn’t say so explicitly—spends too much much time in front of the TV. The words of lyricist Lynn Ahrens had more to say when Petersen looked in the mirror.

“Who is this man in the thickening body, hair getting thin and chin going slack?” he said.

Understand that Petersen is no couch potato. The actor, singer and writer has created two shows based on his family, including “A Christmas Carole Petersen,” which has become a popular holiday tradition. He also collaborates with performers with disabilities at Interact Center for the Arts. That sense of elevating the human spirit through art also identifies him with Alfie, a Dublin bus driver who feels most alive when he is reciting Oscar Wilde and directing community theater in a church basement.

Basement rehearsals reinforce feel of show

Nonetheless, a specter dogs Petersen, Alfie and myriad other people soldiering alone through middle life: It is that “anonymous little man” starring back from the looking glass.

“This character is so despairing,” Petersen said.

And yet, Alfie is the focal point of a musical that celebrates self-worth. When all is said and done, he is George Bailey, cheered by his friends and convinced that he does have a “Wonderful Life.” He matters simply because he is in the world.

“A Man of No Importance” had high hopes when it debuted at Lincoln Center in 2002. The movie on which the musical was based had been a sleeper hit in 1994. The creative team for the stage version—playwright Terrence McNally, lyricist Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty—had constructed the Tony winner “Ragtime.” Good previews had stirred whispers that the show would quickly whisk over to Broadway. The critics, however, were lukewarm.

Latte Da director Peter Rothstein watched that New York production and within the first 10 minutes fell in love with it. He’d cooled off by intermission, but by the end of the evening he determined that he wanted to bring the musical to Minneapolis.

“It’s my favorite score to come out of New York in five years,” he said last week.

Rothstein feels the Lincoln Center staging was “overproduced and under-theatricalized,” with coiffed actors, a revolving stage, lavish sets and props.

“We’re stripping it down,” he said. “This is a working people’s theater so there’s a crassness that has to be there. That is the heart of the piece. We’re doing everything like it is in a church basement.”

If that recalls a cinematic cousin, “Waiting for Guffman,” that is exactly the lightness Rothstein and his cast are looking for.

In praise of small men Alfie, a Dublin bus driver in 1964, finds inspiration in Wilde, reciting poetry on the bus and directing plays in the church. These are his happiest moments, brimming with generosity and verve.

“Because of his art, his Oscar Wilde world, he is able to connect,” Petersen said.

He has been exposed as a gay man, reaching his emotional nadir before his compatriots endeavor to buck him up with the telling of a play within a play. He emerges healed and feeling appreciated as an authentic human being.

“Alfie feels the community is against him,” said music director Denise Prosek. “He knows he can’t be a part of the community. He can’t feel the love because he chooses not to feel it.”

Rothstein originally did not have Petersen in mind for the role. Albert Finney portrayed Alfie in the 1994 film adaptation as a stocky and rather slow chap. Roger Rees played the character in New York with physical zest and was referred to as being Hamlet-like by New York Times critic Ben Brantley. Petersen falls in between those extremes, but it’s not so much his corporeal qualities that convinced Rothstein he had the right actor.

“Tod has that quality,” Rothstein said. “There’s a lightness and charm to him, but also a darkness that he is willing to tap into.”

Those attributes of melancholy and mirth help define the Irish music that permeates the work. The sounds of bagpipes, recorders, violins and flutes animate melodies that alternate minor-key ballads and lilting, sweet melodies. Petersen calls the Celtic instruments “heart centered,” and Prosek refers to the music as earthy and grounded.

“It’s the most dramatically composed piece I’ve ever played,” she said.

It isn’t traditional Irish folk music, she said, but richly flavored by those haunting bridges and stout rhythms. Flaherty takes those influences and has given them an edge, a Broadway modernity. Her orchestra will use violin, flute, penny whistle, recorder, piano and synthesizer to approximate other Celtic sounds. Real bagpipes aren’t an option, she said, because they are too loud.

There are many resonances between the art of the play and this production. Like the Dublin thespians, Latte Da has rehearsed in a church basement for several weeks. Dieter Bierbrauer portrays a character who is having an affair with a lass portrayed by Ann Michels. In real life, they’re dating. And then there is Petersen, the sad/happy clown at the center of it all. Like Alfie, he is impressed by the collection of actors, designers and musicians surrounding him.

“The bench is deep,” he said, sounding like an optimistic coach. “Just being in the artistic process is freedom.”


A Man of No Importance

Who: By Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Peter Rothstein for Theatre Latte Da.

When: Opens 8 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. next Sun. Thru April 17.

Where: Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

Tickets: $10-$25. 612-343-3390, or http://www.ticketworks.com.