Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review of "Fiorello!"

The production of the rarely revived Fiorello! by the Berkshire Theatre Group, playing at the Classic Stage Company in New York, features a young, energetic, and fresh scrubbed group of performers, many making their Off-Broadway and even New York stage debut.  They bring a get-up-and-go earnestness to the Pulitzer Prize winning musical.  The show reviews the life of Fiorello H. LaGuardia from his days as a lawyer aiding the downtrodden in the West Village of NYC up to what would be his first victorious New York City mayoral campaign. 

Anytime a book musical about a historical personality is produced it can prove to be problematic.   What do you cover in a person’s multi-faceted life?  What should be left out?  Book writers Jerome Weidman and George Abbott have opted for the more colorful and defining moments in LaGuardia’s life including his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, army service, and political battles in New York City.  The overall feel can sometimes be less then substantial but, taken in its entirety, the plot line does produce a satisfactory whole.

The actors’ youthful exuberance is both an asset and disadvantage for this determined production.  It is a plus for the vitality and spiritedness of the show.  The performers tackle the material head on.  However, at its heart, Fiorello! lampoons the backroom political wheelings and dealings of cigar chomping, time-worn party bosses.  This makes for a disconnect when you have a stage full of millennials.

The score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, the duo behind such musicals as She Loves Me, The Rothchilds, and Fiddler on the Roof, is one of their finest. The songs are melodic and show wit in their lyrics. They skewer politics and politicians as with “Politics and Poker” and “Little Tin Box.” They also include celebratory songs like “The Name’s LaGuardia” and “I Love a Cop” and comprise tender ballads such as “Til Tomorrow” and “When Did I Fall in Love?”

The cast is led by Austin Scott Lombardi as the beloved New York mayor.  He is all-consuming and impassioned in the role, but I was hoping he would be more animated.  LaGuardia was larger then life, but I didn’t get the feel of that from Lombardi.  Matt McLean is wonderful as Morris, the harried legal assistant to the future mayor.  Rylan Morsbach’s performance as Ben, political boss and ally to Fiorello, is somewhat confusing as if he is trying to present a more mature aura to the character.  Katie Birenbolm as Marie, LaGuardia’s longtime aide, demonstrates a fierce loyalty even as she longs for love. Marie Rebecca Brudner as Thea, Fiorello’s first true amore, shows a forceful independence and free-spirited sensibility. Chelsea Cree Groen as Dora and Dan Cassin as Floyd add some spunk to the production as the secondary comic couple. 

Director Bob Moss adroitly orchestrates a large cast in a very small performing space.  He keeps the pacing quick as the early career of LaGuardia is depicted. The relationships between Fiorello and his colleagues, friends, and politicos are central to the production and the director smartly focuses on them.  He also crafts scenes that swing from intimate to boisterous.  Working in concert with choreographer Michael Callahan, there are finely honed, playful dances that liven up the musical.

Fiorello!, playing through October 7th.

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