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Fiorello!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Fiorello!
Danny Rutigliano with the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

A revival of a revival typically faces the “copy of a copy” problem; after all, maintaining robust detail across generations of imitations is not easy. True, the current low-impact City Center Encores! production of Fiorello!, which opened last night and is playing through Sunday, is not a duplication of the one that launched the acclaimed concert series in 1994. It’s a new conception, with a new director (Gary Griffin), musical director (Rob Berman), choreographer (Alex Sanchez), of course cast, and even a new song to shore up the second act. But it’s sufficiently close in spirit — and sufficiently disappointing in overall effect — to qualify nonetheless.

What Griffin has wrought is, at its core, a celebration of the series’ purest aesthetic: its devotion to music. The Jerry Bock–Sheldon Harnick score floats and fizzes on a wave of turn-of-the-20th-century and World War I flavor, adroitly capturing the unpredictability and ethnic texture of New York City at the point it began leading America’s charge into superpower status. The songs, if less distinctly memorable than the ones the team would later write for shows like Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me, capture the soul and spirit of the era of famed NYC mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and bring to life the gently fairy tale–ized world of the book (by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott) that explains how lawyer LaGuardia became a congressman, a war hero, and eventually the city’s political savior.

As long as Berman and his Encores! orchestra get the score right — which they almost invariably do — it’s usually easy to forgive other missteps. But that’s less true of this Fiorello!, because it’s missing one thing that the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize–winning show, especially in the drastically cut-down form in which it appears here (the “concert adaptation” is by the original co-librettist’s son, John Weidman), needs more than anything else: energy. An unabashed musical-comedy treatment of a famous figure must make you get behind that person and his coterie even if (or, considering that nearly 60 years have passed since LaGuardia’s death, especially if) you have no personal knowledge of, or relationship with, them.

Griffin has cast some heavy-hitting talents to inhabit the roles that orbit Fiorello: Kate Baldwin, as a strike leader who eventually becomes his wife; Erin Dilly, as the aide who not-so-secretly adores him for 15 years before marrying him herself; Andrew Samonsky, as his office assistant; and Shuler Hensley, as the Republican party leader who propels him to prominence, only to be pushed aside later. And, when their voices are raised in song, you’re grateful for every one of them. (This is particularly true of Baldwin, whose silvery voice shimmers on the second act opener, “When Did I Fall in Love?”)

But they otherwise evince little personality, and rarely elevate the scenes in which they appear. This might matter less in a standard star vehicle, but because the title character here has only a couple of numbers, the subsidiary roles are of unusual importance in keeping things melodically and lyrically buoyant. On opening night, at any rate, these performers were not yet up to the challenge.

This issue is exacerbated by the absence of a great headliner. Danny Rutigliano, stout, funny, and brightly Italian brash, should be ideal casting as Fiorello. But in practice his delivery is too dark, too heavy, and too tragic to bring you into his corner. Even if the character’s vocal output is limited, he’s seldom offstage, and drives every aspect of the action in some form or another. Rutigliano is obviously doing the best, but because he never owns the stage, he never owns the narrative, and that keeps the production around him more centerless and listless than it should be.

Some things definitely work. The physical production (courtesy of scenic consultant John Lee Beatty, costume consultant Jess Goldstein, and lighting designer Ken Billington) embodies all the right color and frivolity. Jenn Gambatese and Jeremy Bobb, playing a pair of secondary working-class lovers, are delightful without going over the top; and though Emily Skinner does little more than stride onstage to sing one song (“Gentleman Jimmy”) in an oddly anachronistic Emily Skinner style, she gives the joint a real boost during her few minutes onstage. Sanchez’s choreography, though seldom spectacular, is varied and surprising, and in the big Act I campaign showstopper “The Name’s LaGuardia” frantically draws wry connections between the various groups Fiorello courts. And, with songs like “I Love a Cop,” “Till Tomorrow,” and “Little Tin Box,” the Bock and Harnick score provides a few legitimate gems.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite enough. In the nearly 20 years since the curtain rose on Encores!, the series and expectations surrounding it have changed a lot — it’s now about something closer to presenting scaled-down full productions of musicals than merely to glorifying long-lost scores. That demands a different approach, and one that Griffin has not fully applied this time around. He needed to unlock the same verve and style here that he did in the best of his previous Encores! outings — The New Moon, The Apple Tree, and (especially) Pardon My English — but has settled for a staid staging that doesn’t grasp the proper comedic nuances or pacing. I can’t say this Fiorello! is better or worse than the original Encores! version, which I didn’t see, but it might have popped more in its own right had Griffin been more willing to learn from, and just perhaps copy, his own earlier and better efforts.


Fiorello!
Through February 3
New York City Center's Mainstage, 131 West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: New York City Center