Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not address the theatergoers at City Center on the first night of the Encores! appealing though not thrilling production of the 1959 musical “Fiorello,” and he did not compare himself to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia – which is what Mayor Rudolph Giuliani did at the first Encores production of “Fiorello,” in 1994: “Like me,” Giuliani said, “he was elected on a fusion ticket, he was Italian-American, and he inherited a city treasury that is broke.” (Is anybody working on “Rudolph!” the musical?)
There are other changes as well in the Encores! 20th anniversary production of “Fiorello” that distinguish it from that first Encores! “Fiorello,” which launched the entire “Encores Series of Great American Musicals in Concert” at City Center – reflecting the changes in Encores! in general. It is no longer a series of musicals in concert. It is a series of musicals. Gone are the music stands; mostly gone are the signature black notebooks that contained the scripts the performers read aloud. There were just a handful here and there in the new “Fiorello,” as if the notebooks were props, or part of the Encores branding. The performers now play the dialogue, not just sing the songs; the book is no longer virtually eliminated (though it’s still modified.) There are costumes and extensive choreography. There is still a wonderfully full orchestra right on the stage. The shows are still performed only a few times, basically over a long weekend, but each production seems designed with the hope that it will generate enough buzz to transfer to Broadway (as “Chicago” did.) Ticket prices are as high as $117 – Broadway prices.
Even with the changes, “Fiorello,” a musical about the beloved LaGuardia’s pre-mayoral career and love life, might be close to the perfect musical for the Encores! series, although it is far from the perfect musical. The good match is not just because “Fiorello” launched the series or because Mayor LaGuardia is the reason why City Center still survives – he saved it from the wrecking ball by turning it into the city’s first performing arts center. (As the “Fiorello” program explains, with unintentional irony: “The goal was to bring the performing arts to all New Yorkers – at a fraction of Broadway ticket prices.”) Actually, “Fiorello” is close to the perfect musical for Encores! in part because it is far from the perfect musical — something that wouldn’t really work as a long run on Broadway anymore.
The show effectivly launched the careers of the composer-lyricist team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who went on to write “Fiddler on the Roof” and “She Loves Me” (which, fulsome disclosure, I starred in at I.S. 70.) While the original Broadway production of “Fiorello” won both the Tony for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it doesn’t hold up as well as their later musicals, which contain catchier scores, including songs that became popular hits. The songs in “Fiorello” now feel like a cross between a lesser “Guys and Dolls” and an imitative “1776” – New York smarts mixed with bouncy Americana, with a nod to the sounds of the period in which the musical takes place. What stands out about the songs for me now is Harnick’s witty, cynical, sometimes inspiring, often inspired lyrics. Nearly every song has a memorable turn of phrase.
In “Politics and Poker,” where a group of Republican party hacks looking for a candidate to run a losing campaign for Congress sing about the similarities:
Politics and Poker
Politics and Poker
Shuffle up the cards
And find the Joker
Later, the same hacks sing “Little Tin Box,” which explains how it is on a public servant’s salary, they are able to buy yachts and Rolls Royces
You’re implying I’m a crook and I say no sir!
There is nothing in my past I care to hide. I’ve been taking empty bottles to the grocer, and each nickel that I got was put aside
….into a little tin box
In “Unfair,” the lady garment workers on strike against the sweatshop owners sing:
Must we sew, and sew
Solely to survive
So some low so-and-so
When LaGuardia stands up his employee Marie (who would become his second wife) to have a date instead with striking garment worker Thea (who would become his first wife), Marie sings “Marie’s Law,”
Here’s another law we women’ll
Do our best to legislate: it shall be completely criminal for a man to break a date.
We are going to rid the country
Of contempt of courtship
Given this lyrical richness, one can nearly forgive the now-odd choice by librettists Jerome Weidman and George Abbott to focus on LaGuardia’s life between 1912 and 1933 – in other words, before his years as mayor between 1934 and 1945. “Fiorello” shows the Little Flower’s championing of the working man and woman as a lawyer in Greenwich Village; his campaign for Congress and then his enlistment while a Congressman in World War I; his first unsuccessful campaign to be mayor, and his decision to run again. It also works in his two courtships, which is how several pleasing ballads find their way into the show. Then the musical stops before he becomes mayor.
In 1959, just a dozen years after LaGuardia’s death, it surely made more sense to leave out of the musical the years that established his greatness. Nearly everybody alive was as familiar with the details of LaGuardia’s mayoralty as we now are with “The Wizard of Oz” (which is why nobody feels cheated or disoriented by “Wicked.”) But after the show, I asked the first eight people we ran into on 55th Street who LaGuardia was, and only two knew he was the mayor; the others said the guy that the airport’s named after.
Given this unfamiliarity, it matters less that Danny Rutigliano physically resembles the diminutive character he is playing (LaGuardia was just five feet tall). The actor is less successful in capturing the charismatic, mercurial spirit of the man. More effective performances are rendered by Kate Baldwin as Thea, Erin Dilly as Marie, and, as the political boss Ben, Shuler Hensley, fresh from his extraordinary performance in “The Whale” – minus the fat suit, but with his deep voice intact. Giving show-stopping turns are Jenn Gambatese as the radical but cop-loving Dora (“I Love A Cop”) and Emily Skinner as the showgirl Mitzi (“Gentleman Jimmy”). One of the strengths of Encores! has always been its ability to attract first-rate talent — something else it has in common with Mayor LaGuardia.
At New York City Center
Book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Gary Griffin with choreography by Alex Sanchez and music direction by Rob Berman.
Kate Baldwin, Jeremy Bobb, Ray DeMattis, Erin Dilly, Jenn Gambatese, Adam Heller, Shuler Hensley, Richard Ruiz, Danny Rutigliano, Andrew Samonsky, Emily Skinner and Cheryl Stern, with Justin Barnette, Meggie Cansler, Christine DiGiallonardo, Yurel Echezarreta, Leah Edwards, Rob Gallagher, Jordan Fife Hunt, Alison Jantzie, Lizzie Klemperer, Kevin Ligon, Lauralyn McClelland, Rebecca Robbins, Adam Rogers, Steve Routman, Tommy Scrivens, Lainie Sakakura, Carly Blake Sebouhian, Nathaniel Stampley, Kevin Vortmann.
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission.
“Fiorello” is set to run through February 3, 2013