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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The Original Review
Given the quality of work of directors and casts of both new and previously produced plays many of these limited runs have transferred to New York, both on and off Broadway. Barrington Stage Company's The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee , which besides seeding multiple productions and many careers, bought its launching company a handsome new home in Pittsfield.
If Spelling Bee. . . is the splashiest example of a Berkshire summer to New York transfer, there have been others. And despite some instances of New York audiences not receiving them with the same open-armed enthusiasm as Berkshirites, each season brings its share of shows raising artistic directors' hopes that at least one of their productions will continue life, not just at other regional theaters but on or off Broadway. One such transfer has now been realized courtesy of the Berkshire Theater Group in Stockbridge, Massachussets. The show is the 1960 musical, Fiorello! that was a sold-out hit at the company's small, second stage.
But such transfers are costly and challenging. The transfer of Fiorello! to the Big Apple exemplifies the decisions that need to be made. For Fiorello! which was mounted in a small theater and with still unseasoned, actors, there's the question about whether to maintain the full flavor of what worked well locally; in other words, to stick with the cast of the company's apprentices who have regularly been showcased in their second, smaller stage productions, or to hedge the risk by adding a bit of star power. For what's basically a bio-musical about one of New York's most famous mayors, that would have meant at least recasting the title role.
Since Fiorello! has the built-in cache of a starry book-music-lyrics team that won three Tonys and a Pulitzer in 1960, the decision was to bank on history, rather than "name" actors. The casting question also led to another: Was a Broadway transfer possible. After all, Fiorello! hasn't been back on Broadway since 1962, and the current political scene has us yearning for incorruptible politicians like Fiorello LaGuardia.
However, this is a big show crying out for a large space and a full orchestra to do justice to Jerry Bock's rich score. But the Berkshire production's piano and violin band wasn't the only reason this question probably wasn't ever seriously considered. New Yorkers actually did have a fairly recent chance to experience Fiorello! as part the 2013 Encores! season. Even staged in the spacious City Center and featuring the wonderful Encores! orchestra as well as a stellar cast, it was considered a fascinating artefact and without the "legs" to carry it to Broadway like some other Encores! shows. ( My review of that production)
As it turns, the Berkshire production's transfer to the Big Apple adds up as a combination of caution and courage. The entire team of actors and designers is on board, as is Director Bob Moss, who founded Playwrights Horizon. While the city is a lot bigger than Stockbridge, Massachussetts, the theater is again small and with a similar configuration as the one where this revival was launched. And, since the Classic Stage'Company's season in this venue begins in October, this is definitely a limited engagement — long enough for that built-in cache to attract audiences.
Younger audiences, for whom LaGuardia is mainly a place to catch a plane, are hardly likely to question the sketchiness and inaccuracies of the book. Older audiences will be drawn by sentimental memories of "The Little Flower" and the chance to re-experience this early Bock and Harnick show — a fledgling effort which they themselves upstaged with their later super hits like Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me (both successfully revived on Broadway this past season.
As our Berkshire backup, Chesley Plemmons said, this young cast is indeed an appealing lot. And they look terrific in David Murin's colorful period costumes. Carl Sprague's inventive set fits the 13th Street's stage perfectly and is beautifully lit Matthew E. Adelson. However, refreshing as the cast's youthful zest is, the shortcomings of their performances and the staging — as well as George Abbott and Jerome Weidman's book — loom bigger in New York.
I've never been fond of two piano arrangements for big musicals, and the hardly heard violin that's the second instrument here made me more wishful than ever to hear Bock's melodies with a bigger sound. That said, the size of the band and space, should make head mikes unnecessary. Too bad that Director Moss hasn't abandoned the excessive miking which Chesley and other reviewers rightly felt hurt the performances, especially Katie Birenbolm's Marie.
Despite the overdone miking, Rebecca Brudner as LaGuardia's first love, Thea fares much better in the vocal department. . .but why didn't dialect coach David Alan Stern work with her on that strange Italian accent? Lombardi is aptly scrappy as the workaholic, big ego title character and the fact that he's much better looking than the real LaGuardia was makes it easier to buy into Thea and Marie's falling in love with more than the man's personality.
Actually honors for the best all-around performances should go to Ryan Morsbach and Chelsey Creee Groen. Morsbach is on the mark as Ben the savvy political adviser LaGuardia rejected but wisely resumed relations with. That also goes for Groen as Marie's perky seamstress girl friend Dora who falls in love with a cop.
It isn't easy to maneuver the large cast through twenty scenes that include LaGuardia's largely pro-bono law practice and home, the strike and electioneering rallies on the streets of New York, and the Tammany Hall hacks' "politics and poker" get-togethers. Unsurprisingly, the 13th Street stage, like the one in Stockbridge, tends to feel overcrowded, which is not helped by the busyness resulting from the cast's moving scene setting props on and off stage. That said, thanks to choreographer Michael Callahan there are some visually effective scenes to make all these quibbles irrelevant, notably a very Fiddler-like scene and the ensemble's "Till Tomorrow" waltz. Callahan also enterprisingly makes the cast's doubling as stage hands, entertaining in the opening scene at the top of the second act.
To avoid repetition, below our review of the original production by Chesley Plemmons
In recent decades, the American political scene has become so bizarre, distasteful and uninspiring that it has done more than just upset my peace of mind and confidence in government. It has robbed me of a long held belief that good triumphs over evil - that dragon slayers, big or small, on the side of right, can vanquish devils.
Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947), a three-term Mayor of New York, was one such dragon slayer, and the rise of the "Little Flower" (his affectionate nick-name) from obscurity to powerful leader was a case study in "stick-to-it-righteousness."
When the musical Fiorello!, based on his life in politics, opened in 1960, the malaise with government had not yet begun in earnest and the book for the show by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott seemed less significant than the exuberance of the production. The show won the Tony Award for Best Musical as well as a Pulitzer Prize, due in great part to the rich, eclectic score by Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics).
The Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, Massachusetts has mounted a lively production of this uniquely New York musical in their intimate Unicorn Theatre. The choice is both welcome and intriguing.
Sixty years later, the book may seem a bit naive and the story line more jumbled and confused than I remembered it, but the name Tammany Hall still registers as the chief villain and Major Jimmy Walker one of the system's hedonistic bad-boys.
But heck, this is a musical not a political rally (thank you God) and the emphasis is happily place on the music and the romantic triangle between Fiorello (a spirited Austin Lombardi), his first wife Thea (Rebecca Bruder), and his long suffering, love sick assistant, Marie (Katie Birenboim.)
Bob Moss, the esteemed founder of Playwrights Horizons in New York, one of my favorite theater destinations, is the director. With help from choreographer Michael Callahan he creates a whirling, bustling canvas of early 20th century life in the melting pot known as NOO YAWK. David Murin's costumes add flavor and zip (some leggy sequined show girls) to the mix.
The cast is made up of young performers associated with the Berkshire Group and they're an able, appealing lot. The absence of any senior actors does shade the dramatics of the story a bit.
Austin Lombardi is a standout as the ambitious, stick of dynamite LaGuardia and Rebecca Bruner as his Italian wife and Katie Birenboim as his love sick political associate contribute strong emotional moments. All three have polished voices I also enjoyed Rylan Morsbach's rugged political boss and Matt Mclean and Michael Sullivan as loyal Fiorello supporters. The guys in the cast make out best getting to sing both the cynical but funny "Politics and Poker" and "Little Tin Box." Chelsea Groan and Dan Cassin carry off the comedy of the dumb cop (Floyd) and even dumber blonde (Dora – what else) with a thankful minimum of cuteness.
I did wish, however, that the sound man had not miked Groen and Birenboim so much they both came off as shrill— less of a problem for Groen's flighty character, but definitely a miss for Marie who could use a softer, warmer tone.
Best moments are when the entire cast is singing and dancing to one of the dreamy songs — like "Till Tomorrow" and "Home Again." In the scene where ethic groups are assembled for a LaGuardia rally did I not hear hints of melodies from Bock and Harnick's later masterpiece, "Fiddle on the Roof." Yes, I did and so will you.
Reviewed by Chesley Plemmons during the show's June 15th to July 23rd run at the Berkshire Theater Group's Unicorn Theater.
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Music : Jerry Bock; Lyrics: Sheldon Harnick
Book: Jerome Weidman and George Abbott
Directed by Bob Moss
Choreography by Michael Callahan
Music Direction: Evan Zavada
Cast (alphabetical): Katie Birenboim (Marie),Michael Brahce (Zapatella and others), Rebecca Brudner (Thea), Drew Carr (Chadwick and (others),John Barsolan (Lopez and Others) Dan Cassin (Floyd), Collier Cobb (Lena and Others), Christy Coco (Sophie and Others), Maureen Glessner (Mitzi and Others), Chelsea Groen (Dora), Austin Lombardi (Fiorello), Ana Lovric (Mrs. Pomerantz), Matt McLean (Morris), Kelly Ryan Moaore (Emma and Others),Rylan Morsbach (Ben), Ben Dallas Redding (Scarpini and Other), )Julius Reese (Judge Carter and Others), Jessica
Musicians: Alan Gokce Erem (Violin), Robert Frost (Keyboard)
Scenic design: Carl Sprague
Costume design: David Murin
Lighting design: Matthew E Adelson
Sound design: Brendan F. Doyle
Dialect coach: David Alan Stern
Stage Managers: Shelby North, Chandalae Nyswonger
> Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
Berkshire Theatre Groupat 13th Street Theater
From 9/04/16; opening 9/09/16;closing 10/07/16.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/07 press preview
Musical Numbers - Act One
Musical NumbersAct Two
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