A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
It's also an apt launch for the Encores! 20th-anniversary season since it was Mayor LaGuardia who saved the 1923 building where the invaluable concert series makes its home from the wrecking ball and transformed it into Manhattan's first performing arts center. It was none other than His Honor who took to the stage to conduct the national anthem when it opened. And it was at City Center that Fiorello! enjoyed a 16-performance revival in 1962, following its 795 performances at the Broadhurst Theatre , (1959 -/1961).
An unintended and poignant bit of additional synchronicity, another colorful former three-termer, Ed Koch, died on the night a documentary about him opened and this Fiorello! revival got under way. At the risk of sounding crass, no publicist could have dreamed up a better way to drum up interest.
But enough about the apt planned and unplanned timeliness of this show which, for all its awards, isn't nearly as well known as Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's more mature and much produced musicals, like Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me. It has some delightful tunes that thanks to a stellar cast and the splendid Encores! orchestra are a pleasure to hear again or for the first time. As directed by Gary Griffin and choreographed by Alex Sanchez, it's a smooth, visually pleasing look at a slice of Big Apple history.
Fiorello!'s status as a neglected work can be attributed to the requirement for a generally unaffordable big cast and the structural weaknesses that tend to afflict early works. The latter pertain to an insubstantial book and musical elements that often detour instead of not organically expanding on the story.
The show is essentially a musicalized biography covering twenty years of the feisty Little Flower's personal and career trajectory. The first act covers his days as a workaholic lawyer to his run for Congress, his service in World War 1, and his marriage to a beautiful Italian showroom model. Act Two jumps ahead ten years to his first campaign. It ends with his regaining his spirit after being defeated by Jimmy Walker and devastated by the death of his wife and ready to run and marry again.
Despite building up the title character with some lyrics added to give him a solo reprise for "The Name's LaGuardia after the second act's reprise of "Gentleman Jimmy," this is still a rather sketchy picture of LaGuardia. Blessed as it is with a truly stellar cast, this production is an enjoyable artefact rather than a flawless, consistently thrilling treasure. The shortened concert version by the original co-librettist's son John Weidman, possibly exacerbates rather than alleviates the enduring structural weaknesses.
About that stellar cast. If I had to single out one standout in this large and able cast, it would be the Shuler Hensley as the savvy Pol Ben Morino whose advice LaGuardia ignored in his losing campaign but with whom he wisely resumed relations. Hensley who has not had too many chances to play a fun character (I first got to admire him as the dangerously dark Jud in the last Broadway revival of Oklahoma and more recently watched him as a dying, grossly obese man in The Whale) is a delightful Guys and Dolls kind of guy, who speaks with a raspy voice but has a wonderfully clear singing voice. The show soars and sizzles whenever the action shifts to Ben Marino's club house. Ben and his septet of political hacks bring enough sparkle two of the show's best tunes — "Policies and Poker" and "Little Tin Box" — to make you understand Fiorello's long and award winning Broadway run.
My putting Hensley front and center in my comments on the performances doesn't mean that Danny Rutigliano isn't fine in the title role. He's got the build and pugnacious personality to be made for the role. He sings and moves energetically and well. Too bad he's somehow charisma-challenged and had me keep wishing I'd seen Tom Bosley who became a star playing LaGuardia on Broadway.
As Thea, the tall Italian beauty he woos and wins, Kate Baldwin doesn't have much to dig into in the way of acting, but she does stop the show with her gorgeous rendition of "When Did I Fall In Love?" Erin Dilly plays Marie, the stereotypical wise and sassy Girl Friday to the hilt. Unsurprisingly just as she tells Morris (the very fine Adam Heller), her fellow LaGuardia aide that she's going to "Marry The Very Next Man," her boss finally picks up the torch she's been carrying and proposes. That bring the show to a somewhat jarringly abrupt end, leaving the audience to Google anything they want to know about the LaGuardia administration that followed.
Other highlights before that abrupt ending throws a spotlight on Thea's seamstress friend Dora (played with charm and verve by Jenn Gambatese). Her romance with Floyd McDuff (Jeremy Bobb) adds a secondary romance and the perky "I Love a Cop." Dora and Floyd's move up in the world also paves the way for a chance to bring on Emily Skinner as nightclub entertainer Mitzi Travers to help them entertain a group of big wigs in their penthouse to belt out a jazzy "Gentleman Jim." The big-voiced Skinner's many fans were unlikely to complain that this number doesn't really belong and could easily have streamlined this version some more.
Typical of recent editions of the script-in-hand format, there's little reliance on those scripts and what you see is very much a finished show though with minimal sets to keep the focus on Rob Berman and the Encores! orchestra. In this case the scenery consists mainly of some much moved around crates.
While this production won't send anyone home saying "No wonder Fiorello! beat out Gypsy for the Pulitzer Prize" The Pulitzer committee was probably swayed by the political timeliness of LaGuardia's attack on the prevailing self-serving business tycoons and political hacks. However, Gypsy which was also done by Encores is a masterpiece while Fiorello! is entertaining but its composer/lyricist's fledgling effort that they themselves surpassed with more timeless works. And, while Gypsy became one of Encores! productions with legs for a Broadway transfer (Reviews at Encores! and on Broadway), the Fiorello! production is likely to be part of the Encores! category of grab-it-while-you-can treats.
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