Monday, February 18, 2013

Politics and Poker: Fiorello! at City Center

Danny Rutigliano, center, as Fiorello LaGuardia in Fiorello! (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

One of my earliest musical-theatre memories is of seeing Fiorello! on Broadway with my parents in 1960, after it had won the Pulitzer Prize. I can still remember some of George Abbott’s staging, most vividly the big “The Name’s LaGuardia” number in the middle of the first act, where the title character, Fiorello LaGuardia (Tom Bosley), campaigns fervently in English, Italian and Yiddish to secure the Republican vote for a Congress seat in a district nailed down for years by Tammany Hall. It’s a marvelous show-stopper, one of the most memorable pieces in the musicals of the late fifties, like “Ya Got Trouble” in The Music Man and “The Telephone Hour” in Bye Bye Birdie. This musical bio of the man who became one of New York City’s most beloved mayors – the diminutive but fierce character known as the Little Flower – is a terrific show; the original cast recording captures its brio as well as the melodic range of Jerry Bock’s music and the wit of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics. (It was their first hit, predating She Loves Me by four years and Fiddler on the Roof by five.) So I was in a state of joyous anticipation from the moment Encores! announced that Fiorello! would be the show to open its twentieth season. (The series began with the same musical in 1994, but I missed it.)

And I must report, unhappily, that the production was a disappointment. Though I’m aware that the book (by Abbott and Jerome Weidman) isn’t exactly The Manchurian Candidate – the second act is rather abrupt and some of the characters are underwritten – it’s got flavor and certainly more grit than was in evidence at City Center, where most of the cast, under Gary Griffin’s indifferent direction, approached it as if it were rather a quaint remnant from a bygone era. Danny Rutigliano went at LaGuardia as if he were playing Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls, and two of the three performers cast as the loyal comrades in his populist law firm, Erin Dilly as Marie (who loves him unrequitedly for a decade and a half before he finally makes her his second wife) and Andrew Samonsky as Neil, seemed to think they were in a cabaret act. (Dilly mugged so boisterously that I wanted to throw my playbill at her in her two featured songs, “Marie’s Law” and “The Very Next Man.”) Only Adam Heller, as the slightly ulcerated Morris, seemed to belong to the world the musical imagines in its spirited opening number, “On the Side of the Angels,” about the law office’s dedication to improving the lives of the poor and the disenfranchised.
Kate Baldwin and Danny Rutigliano (Photo by Sara Krulwich)
Kate Baldwin sang beautifully as Fiorello’s first wife, Thea, whom he meets when she helms a sweatshop strike and who dies (of TB, though the script doesn’t spell it out) the night he loses his mayoral bid to Jimmy Walker. Almost, I have to say, too beautifully: she practically turned the second-act opener, “When Did I Fall in Love?” – a soaring romantic ballad that many people now know through Audra McDonald’s superb cover – into an art song instead of giving it some dramatic impetus. Jenn Gambatese did well with Thea’s friend Dora’s comic declaration, “I Love a Cop.” But the best element of the production was the crew of poker-playing political hacks under the wary, weary leadership of Ben Marino (played by Shuler Hensley with a hollowed-out barrel of a voice). Ben’s pals were played by Justin Barnette, Rob Gallagher, Kevin Ligon, Steve Routman, Nathaniel Stampley and Kevin Vortmann. Bock and Harnick reserved the three scene-stealing numbers for this winning collection of cynics: “Politics and Poker,” the immensely clever “The Bum Won” (in which, their jaws dropping, they consider Fiorello’s feat of stealing his first election out from under the Tammany incumbent), and their hilarious second-act paean to graft, “Little Tin Box.”
Before Bock died in 2010, he and Harnick added a song to the score, a reprise of “The Name’s LaGuardia” framed as a kind of soliloquy for the title character after he’s lost his wife and been defeated at the polls. It’s meant to be a soul-searching song with an uplifting ending, but since it begins and ends with the subject of his political career, it makes him look callous and self-adoring – not the note the musical should be sounding at this point in the narrative. The number is a bad mistake, and Rutigliano drowned inside it.
Rob Berman conducted the Encores! Orchestra rousingly – I was with the show through the exciting overture – and there was some lively tap dancing in the “Gentleman Jimmy” number, the one high spot in Alex Sanchez’s otherwise obligatory choreography. But overall the production felt like an afterthought, down to the spanking-clean women’s skirts (Jess Goldstein was costume consultant), which seemed better suited to a revival of The Music Man. Barney Frank did make a surprise appearance in the first act as a congressman, to the delight of the Manhattan audience, but in a really good remounting of Fiorello! Frank’s guest-star cameo would have been a bonus, not a relief.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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