Sweet score fuels overlong musical

March 22, 2004.By Dominic P. Papatola, Pioneer Press.

The only thing I remember from high school algebra is that, when you’re faced with a complex equation, you’re supposed to do the bits in parentheses first. You solve the smaller problems within the problem, and eventually you can decipher what the heck X stands for.

In Theater Latte Da’s pleasant production of the musical, “A Man of No Importance,” the X they’re solving for is Alfie, a meek Dublin bus conductor and director of amateur musicals who’s living a life of quiet desperation. By the end of 2 ½ hours, we’ve got him all figured out, but that understanding comes through a needlessly involved and mawkish dramatic equation that has entirely too much in the way of subplots and parentheses.

Ticking the thematic tangents off the top of my head: We’ve got a beautiful young lass with a secret, a devoted sister who’s not getting any younger, the machinations of a small-minded but powerful butcher, an extramarital affair and … oh, yeah, the periodic visits by Oscar Wilde. All the while, the play is trying to coax poor Alfie out of a sexual-orientation closet so dark and so deep he can barely find the doorknob.

That Terrance McNally’s book is so junked up and overly sentimentalized is kind of a shame, since composing team Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (the folks behind “Ragtime” and “Seussical’) have written a sweet score, one given charming voice by Theater Latte Da. The music has an overriding sense of, well, Irishness about it, but ranges both emotionally and musically, from small, highly personal ballads like “Love Who You Love” to broad, driving anthems like “The Streets of Dublin.”

Peter Rothstein does an adroit job at directing the piece, doing his best to mitigate its intrinsic shortcomings. He gives the show a homey, slightly tough-around-the-edges charm, a fitting tack for a show about working men and women. Music director Denise Prosek’s small orchestra includes a violin, a flute and a penny whistle, which nicely underscores Rothstein’s folksy approach to the material.

Tod Petersen’s Alfie gives the production a solid center. With his excuse-me-please smile and singing voice that’s pleasant but not classically powerful, he looks and feels just right as the middle-age man whose life is more books and fancy than gritty reality. Petersen treads a thin line – he earns our sympathy for Alfie but mainly avoids casting him as a victim of anything other than his own decisions.

Dieter Bierbrauer adds strong vocal and dramatic support as Robbie Fay, Alfie’s friend and the oblivious object of his affections. A couple of top-notch character actors – Vera Mariner and Walter Weaver – give the production warmth, humanity and common-touch humor. George Muellner struggles vocally in the role of Carney, the aforementioned self-righteous butcher.

However charming the cast members might be, though, they’re laboring across a dramatic path dotted with quicksand and rough side paths. “A Man of No Importance” isn’t a bad show by any means. It’s more like a pleasant guest who outstays his welcome.

What: Theater Latte Da’s production of “A Man of No Importance”

When: Thursdays-Sundays through April 17

Where: Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Tickets: $25-$20; call 612-343-3390

Capsule: A decent musical that lingers longer than it should.