Fiorello! – East 13th Street Theatre, New York

Austin Scott Lombardi. "Fiorello" (NYC), BTG 2016. Photos by Alexander Hill

Austin Scott Lombardi in Fiorello at The East 13th Street Theater, New York. Picture: Alexander Hill

Fiorello!, a Berkshire Theatre Group production, continues at The East 13th Street Theatre, New York until 7 October. 

Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩

For good and for bad, this Off-Broadway revival of Fiorello! tingles with an eager, fresh-faced youthfulness from start to finish. It provides the pleasure of watching a crew of 21 budding talents – many of whom have only recently graduated from college – tackle a classic, traditional mid-20th Century Broadway musical with fondness and appreciation. At the same time, all this unbridled youth undercuts significantly the gritty depiction of backroom political chicanery and hardscrabble New York life that gives the show its narrative heft.

Fiorello! celebrates some of the life and times of Fiorello LaGuardia, the legendary New York mayor who through three terms from 1934 to 1945 shepherded the city through a tumultuous era of economic crisis and world war. He brought drown the corrupt political machine that had dominated the scene for years and revitalised the city in major ways, while championing the underdogs of his diversified constituency.

The musical, with its solid if not absolutely glorious score by lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock, opened on Broadway in November 1959, running for 795 performances and in the process winning both the Best Musical Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize as well, one of only nine musicals to win the esteemed Pulitzer for drama.

The book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott covers only a quarter-century of LaGuardia’s eventful life. The script ends in 1934 with his first successful campaign for the mayoral seat. While it mildly fictionalises some dates and condenses a lot of the history, it gives a vivid taste of the man’s colorful, charismatic and sometimes overbearing personality. We see him first as a lawyer circa 1910, serving the needs of the city’s melting pot Lower East Side residents, whether they can afford to pay or not.

In the opening number, his clerks and secretary, Marie, sing an ode to him as a man ‘On the Side of the Angels’. The plot’s love interest emerges when he takes on the plight of women strikers at a shirtwaist factory and falls for their leader, the comely immigrant Thea, a romance that ends in marriage.

A little later, in an attempt to confront the city’s venal political system, he gets himself nominated as an underdog candidate for the US Congress and surprisingly wins. There he creates controversy by promoting a universal military draft as the only democratic way to build up an army, and he backs up his words by enlisting into the army with the start of the First World War, becoming a pilot, racking up some heroic service and at war’s end coming home to Thea.

At the start of Act II, it’s ten years later and LaGuardia has resumed his law career while also planning to run for New York mayor, a race he loses to the hand-picked incumbent of the machine, ‘Gentleman’ Jimmy Walker, another legendary New York figure, but hardly an unsullied one.

It’s a hard-fought campaign, in which there’s even an attempt on LaGuardia’s life. It’s also marred by tragedy with Thea’s untimely death. However, when Walker is forced out of the mayor’s office in scandal, Marie and others convince LaGuardia to make another try. LaGuardia furthermore finally recognises the love and devotion quietly offered by his long-time secretary. He asks for Marie’s hand in marriage and together they go on to campaign successfully for mayor.

Despite the acclaim of its original Broadway run, Fiorello! has never had a full-fledged Broadway revival. It did see a quick follow-up 16-performance mounting at New York City Center in 1962 in a series it presented of inexpensive offerings of recently-closed Broadway shows. Much later at City Center, Fiorello! could claim to be the only show that has had two productions in the prestigious Encores! series of staged concert presentations.

This current Off-Broadway rendering comes from the Berkshire Theatre Group, one of the several organisations that enliven the performing arts scene in the picturesque Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. The summer production, put together by director Bob Moss as a showcase for young talent, garnered generally strong reviews and sold-out houses, apparently prompting the move to New York. While the show is playing at The East 13th Street Theater, the home of Classic Stage Company, it is not a production of CSC (where, as you may recall, the inimitable John Doyle has just taken over as artistic director).

Moss’ adroit staging fits nicely into the intimate confines of the space, as does Michael Callahan’s often bouncy choreography. One highlight is the riotous dancing that breaks out when LaGuardia delivers a speech in Yiddish to a rally of Jewish voters. (While LaGuardia’s parents were indeed Italian, his mother was also Jewish.) The sequence may happily remind you of another, much more popular Bock-Harnick work, Fiddler On the Roof, whose latest Broadway revival is set to close 31 December.

Production values are fairly nifty as well. Carl Sprague’s set is dotted with movable, miniature replicas of New York skyscrapers, and the stage floor is covered with newspaper headlines, proclaiming various events in LaGuardia’s career. David Murin has provided a plethora of period costumes. Two keyboards, one played by music director Evan Zavada, and a violin, make a rich-sounding band, situated neatly in an upstage wing.

Where Moss apparently succeeded most importantly is in guiding his cast into performances that abound with confidence and bravura. What he can’t give them is the seasoning and depth that generally come with experience, the kind of seasoning that the script and many of the musical numbers demand to be fully realised. When the political hacks get together for the big, two satirical numbers – ‘Politics and Poker’ and ‘Little Tin Box’ – it’s enjoyable mainly in the sense that you’re seeing a bunch of young guys vocalising quite well but trying hard to play act as old-time pillars of corrupt politics, distracting somewhat from the punch of Harnick’s clever lyrics.

Rebecca Brudner impresses with some pretty singing as Thea, particularly with the main operetta-like ballad, ‘When Did I Fall in Love?’, replete with its stratospheric high notes. Katie Birenboim is a sympathetic Marie, who delivers with spirit her big number expressing frustration over her relationship with LaGuardia, leading to her vow to marry ‘The Very Next Man’ who asks her to marry him, whoever that may be. Of course, she doesn’t know that man will shortly be LaGuardia.

There’s also some commendable work by Chelsea Cree Groen as Dora, Thea’s best friend, and Dan Cassin, Dora’s policeman boyfriend, later husband, whom she sings about with comic ardor in ‘I Love a Cop’.

Finally, and most crucially, there’s Austin Scott Lombardi in the title role. He has LaGuardia’s abbreviated height, although it comes with a trim physique at odds with the somewhat stocky look of the real man. However, Lombardi smartly invests the character with a lot of appropriate James Cagney-like swagger, sometimes adding a touch of Humphrey Bogart-like gravitas for the more serious moments, and he handles the musical numbers with panache, even though at time his voice seemed a trifle worn. (The role is played in matinees by Matt Caccamo.)  It’s a performance worthy of abundant applause, although I have to say that, as with most of this notably youthful cast, I was rarely enticed into performing that most important act of an audience: suspending disbelief.

Ron Cohen 

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