Tanaka Dunbar-Ngwara as Adele Rice, a young woman newly arrived in 1964 Dublin, in YMTC’s A Man of No Importance. Photo: Courtesy of Dave Weiland

Can a musical set in conservative, church-dominated Ireland in the mid-60s still resonate in the secular liberal environment of the Bay Area of 2019? Berkeley’s Youth Musical Theater Company firmly believes it can.

The group’s new production, which opens Saturday, is a work by Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Terrence McNally (book) — the same team who created the multiple-Tony-winning hit Ragtime.  

Adapted from a 1994 film starring Albert Finney, A Man of No Importance tells the story of Alfie Byrne, a bus driver in 1964 Dublin, who uses the poetry of Oscar Wilde to entertain the passengers on his bus each day. It is no coincidence that Wilde, the flamboyant Victorian aesthete, is Alfie’s hero as we soon learn.

YMTC, now in its 14th year, draws talented artists from across the Bay Area to stage high-quality musical theater. This show’s cast is headed by two Berkeley High students: senior Zev Marx-Kahn in the role of Alfie and junior Tanaka Dunbar-Ngwara as Adele Rice, a shy young woman whom Alfie “woos” through reciting Wilde’s poetry to her. But the pursuit of Adele is not sexual, for Alfie is gay and, initially at least, firmly in the closet. Rather, he wants to cast her as the lead in Wilde’s Salome, a play risqué enough to have been banned in London in its own day, which he hopes to stage in his parish hall.

“The score is one of my absolute favorites,” says resident music director David Möschler. “Ahrens’ lyrics with Flaherty’s gorgeous score of Irish-inspired ballads and reels combine to form something that is almost more poetry than song.”

“We just love working on good material — and this is a perfect play in my opinion,” said Jennifer Boesing, YMTC’s artistic director. “Which makes it great for teaching, always a priority for us.

“We have been deeply moved by the process of discovering this story with these young artists. The more we delved in, the more its depths revealed great truths. It may seem an impossible task for sixteen teenage actors — living in a digitally motivated, fast-paced world in 2019 — to dive into the hearts and minds of mostly middle-aged, working class Catholics in 1964 Dublin, Ireland. Yet, as always, the young artists at YMTC amazed and delighted us with their commitment and willingness to rise to the challenges it presents.”

Walter Marion (Oscar Wilde), left, and Zev Marx-Kahn (Alfie Byrne) in YMTC’s production of A Man of No Importance. Photo: Courtesy of David Weiland

At a technical level, one major challenge was mastery of the distinctive working-class Irish accent spoken in Dublin. For that, YMTC brought in one of the Bay Area’s most highly respected dialect coaches, Rebecca Castelli.

“For most productions,” Boesing notes, “we might have a dialect coach come in once, but on this occasion Rebecca worked with the actors over five sessions. And we think it has paid off.”

Marx-Kahn harbors no doubts about the musical’s relevance to a Bay Area audience despite the span of culture and decades

“Alfie’s story is an incredible journey. The circumstances he grew up in are completely different from those of mine. We are both LGBTQ people, and while I had some struggles coming out as gay man, I never doubted the support of my family and my friends, nor feared for my safety. Alfie, because of where he is, has to face all those issues in the Ireland of his time, and he’s not able to grow up and be at peace with who he is until, really, the very end of the play. Initially, it’s depressing, it’s tragic that he can’t be himself, but ultimately it’s inspiring how he finds strength and peace in a society that doesn’t want him to, and I think it’s a testimony to the resiliency of queer people and the power of love no matter what the circumstances.”

Dunbar-Ngwara also sees subtle similarities between her character’s circumstances and those of Alfie that add emotional depth to the story.Boesing suggests that A Man of No Importance is in many ways a coming-of-age story, despite the fact that Alfie’s in his 40s when he discovers himself. That aspect of the play, she says, found a ready familiarity with the young cast.

“Adele has her own secret for most of the play and also has to confront issues of forbidden love,” she says. “You have to play her in a such a way that the audience senses this, so that it makes the revelation, when it comes, believable.”

Dunbar-Ngwara also found the mastery of the Dublin accent challenging but fun.

“There’s a lot of technical work — shaping your mouth for the particular sounds and so on, understanding the changes that need to be made for singing in an accent versus speaking it. But once it’s clicked, you just run with it.”

And like Marx-Kahn, Dunbar-Ngwara finds the universality of the play’s themes relevant in today’s world.

“Although it’s set a long time ago, and it’s a very specific setting, I’ve lived in Zimbabwe, for example, and know that the issues it addresses are still very much alive. And I think the music and the songs add depth to the original film version, making them more powerful, and in some ways, more relatable.”

YMTC’s A Man of No Importance opens Saturday, March 9, at the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Theater. Its run consists of three 7:30 p.m. performances (March 9, 15, and 16) and three 2 p.m. matinees (March 10, 16, and 17). Tickets are available online at www.ymtcbayarea.org or at the door one hour before curtain. Ticket prices are $16–32, with discounts for students, seniors, military, teachers and groups. YMTC also offers one “pay-what-you-will” performance to provide affordable musical theater to all in the community. This performance will be on Friday, March 15, at 7:30 p.m., when seats will be offered for cash only at the box office. Reserved seats can still be purchased online.