Review by Kathleen Campion
16 September 2016
As I ducked into the modest East 13th Street Theater on a recent, rainy Wednesday night, to see the Berkshire Theatre Group's Fiorello!, it was easy to imagine the original lighting up Broadway in 1959, eventually claiming the Tony for best musical (1960) and a Pulitzer.
Some of the biggest names in American musical theater (Jerome Weidman and George Abbott did the book, Jerry Bock did the music with Sheldon Harnick's lyrics) had thrown in together and polished up this singing and dancing version of Fiorello LaGuardia's political career from the late teens to the mid-1940s.
It took a troupe from western Massachusetts to produce this quintessentially New York City story. Noting the show is rarely produced, except in concert form featuring well-worn hits like "Little Tin Box" and "Politics and Poker," Berkshire worked it up, rented the 13th Street house, and brought it to town.
There is a considerable "buy-in" required here. First, the book is dated — as well as strangled — by too many demands. The form is what it was in 1959: one musical number (big), followed by another musical number (small), then a solo. The boy/girl story works with the facts of LaGuardia's bio, and the political corruption stories of LaGuardia's beating Tammany Hall and of Jimmy Walker's thuggery are both of the winking variety. After all it is musical comedy.
This show works for all the reasons musical theater does when it's well executed. Fiorello! was already a period piece in 1959. This production depends on it's fresh-faced cast and it's music and musicians being scrupulously true to the time, to slip you right into the play. It is one measure of that seduction that the burly man seated next to me asked me to stop tapping my foot to the music because he found it disturbing. No matter where you sit, you actually DO go out humming the tunes.
There is charm and wit in the lyrics. Still, after growing accustomed to the slippery grace of a Sondheim lyric, and now pushed to an even fiercer expectation by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the wit in Fiorello! has an antiquated, "let's not ask too much of our audience," feel. Fiorello! has not changed and this production is entirely authentic. It's the audience whose expectation has changed.
The choreography (Michael Callahan) verges on sorcery. So many people, so much movement, so little space. The playing space at just 25' x 30' must see the equivalent foot traffic of Times Square with each performance. Traffic aside, the dance is delightful, artful. It is not 'An American in Paris' but it whispers a bit of that balletic formality in a tap dancing score. The blend of tap and ballet, of ethnic dance with just plain grace of movement is all the more remarkable for the economy of the space.
The cast all seem to be about the same age so on occasion they struggle to cover all the character demands. Austin Scott Lombardi, in the title role, has the boyish charm of a young Billy Crystal and little of the weight of the powerful politician he plays. Lombardi is slender and good looking so comes as a surprise to anyone with a mental picture of the actual LaGuardia.
The two women in leading parts, Katie Birenboim (Marie the long suffering secretary) and Rebecca Brudner (the first Mrs. Fiorello) are each superb.
Barenboim sells her anthem of independence, "The Very Next Man," with persuasion, and Bruder delivers a tender, nuanced anthem of the nature of love, "When Did I Fall in Love?"
Chelsea Cree Groen is the artful dodger, stealing scenes indiscriminately — narrow shoulders, big talent.
All the male dancers seem joyous in the act. They float and they fly and they can sing too! Rylan Morsbach (Ben) gets the lion's share of singing moments and he's up to all of them. That said, all of the singing and dancing cast is wildly talented and blended beautifully.
The finale, a bit of an anticlimax, feels like just one more number. Still, if you are amenable to slipping back to a rollicking musical of this vintage try to get a ticket. It won't be easy. That rainy Wednesday night was a sell out.
"Powered by a notably youthful cast — many look as if they had just cleared the Clearasil years — the production, directed by Bob Moss, has a sunny-spirited exuberance that quickly fills the intimate East 13th Street Theater."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
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