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Chicago by John Olson

Fiorello!
TimeLine Theatre Company

Fiorello
PJ Powers, Michael Kingston and Rebecca Finnegan
Mission Statement: "TimeLine Theatre Company presents stories inspired by history that connect with today's social and political issues." Do they ever. When the company announced Fiorello! and their '05-'06 season one year ago, they couldn't have imagined how timely would be the story of the New York Congressman and Mayor who rose to prominence as a champion of recent immigrants, opening just days after major immigration rallies in Chicago and other US cities. The social/political historians among us will be fascinated by the story of the populist Fiorello LaGuardia and may long for the resurrection of that type of principled and charismatic leadership, and possibly the resurrection of the man himself. The musical theater historians among us will savor the opportunity to see this not-forgotten but seldom-performed musical of 1959 that won a Pulitzer and tied The Sound of Music for the Best Musical Tony while beating out Gypsy for that award.

On either count, it's a worthwhile experience. TimeLine takes its history quite seriously, with posters and study guides in the lobby that provide a literal timeline of the historical events behind the play. A regular practice for this company, it's especially useful for this show, helping contemporary audiences some 70 years removed from the end of LaGuardia's political career to understand the back story behind Jerome Weidman's highly telescoped book. They take the further step of offering a projected montage of LaGuardia's mayoral and other career accomplishments under the overture (the story of the musical itself ends shortly before he's elected Mayor of New York).

As a piece of musical theater history, the company gives Fiorello! just about as good a production as one could imagine. Director Nick Bowling has his very capable cast perform with a natural aplomb that never pushes too hard for the small space, inside the jam-packed unit set of ladders and platforms designed by Kevin Hagan. Rebecca Finnegan, last year's Best Musical Actress Jeff Award winner for Sweeney Todd and coming off a gig as pushy Mama Rose for Porchlight, gets to ease up a bit as Fiorello's long-suffering secretary and eventual second wife Marie. There's a knockout rendition of "Gentleman Jimmy" by Bethany Thomas, as well as solid work by Michael Kingston as Morris, Cassie Wooley as LaGuardia's first wife Thea, Alan Schmuckler as the assistant Neil, Maris Hudson as Dora (who sings "I Love A Cop") and Sean Sullivan as the cop she loves. Terry Hamilton as the Republican boss Ben Marino, together with his "Five Hacks" (Aaron Graham, Jonathan Hickerson, Brendan Kelly, Dan Loftus and Chuck Sisson), do well by the show's well known "Politics and Poker" and "Little Tin Box."

At the center of this crew is of course Fiorello himself, played with a bit too much visible effort by TimeLine's Artistic Director PJ Powers. He's got the look down (with help from costume designer Lindsay Pate), as well as the energy, but he relies a little too heavily on a few mannerisms and ends up not quite as convincing as his castmates. That's not as devastating as it might seem, since oddly, Fiorello! is not all that concerned with Fiorello. The 1960 Tony Award committee apparently thought as much, recognizing original Fiorello Tom Bosley only as Best Supporting/Featured Actor.

While Fiorello! is a well-meaning and not unsuccessful musical, it's a bit of an odd one. Its attentions are too diffused between its many characters to get us very engaged with any of them, and reading TimeLine's history of LaGuardia and his era, it seems he was much more colorful in real life than Weidman was able to capture. Bock and Harnick's songs are perfectly decent representatives of Broadway's Golden Age that flow easily from the dialogue, but they aren't exactly essential to the drama, either. Still, as an attempt to be both an entertainment and a musical of ideas, its ambitions are to be admired and TimeLine's multi-media educational approach to production may be just the perfect way to experience this show.

Fiorello! runs through June 18, 2006 at 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 4 PM and 8 PM, and Sundays at 2 PM. For tickets, call 773.282.TIME (8463) or visit www.timelinetheatre.com.


Photo: Lara Goetsch

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-- John Olson



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