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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 16, 2016

Austin Scott Lombardi and the cast
Photo by Alexander Hill

Late in the first act of Fiorello!, the titular hero does something unheard of in politics in the implosive days through which we're presently living: He strives to unite. Traipsing through New York's various neighborhoods, tailoring his stump speech to the inhabitants' unique ethnic backgrounds and musical tastes (he's Mr. Italian one moment, and an ultra-orthodox Jew the next), he's desperate to prove that he's not only a man of the people—he's the man of the people, so at one with everybody that to not cast a ballot for him is to let everyone down. Sure, his goal may be only to secure a congressional seat, but he's accomplishing it the good, old-fashioned way. No, not by work. By charisma.

Pulling people to you, no matter where they are, who they are, or what they like, is a rare gift, but one that Jerome Weidman and George Abbott (book), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), and Jerry Bock (music), want to make sure we know is what made Fiorello H. LaGuardia such an iconic persona in the first half of the 20th century. And though the show they've written has a pleasingly punchy political book and a score that presages the deeper wonders that Bock and Harnick were to later craft for Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me, it perhaps does too good a job at painting its central figure as a one-of-a-kind electoral wunderkind. The revival of it that's playing at the East 13th Street Theater through October 7 is utterly absent this quality and, as a result, is almost unbearable.

To be clear, this is not expressly the fault of the actor playing Fiorello (Austin Scott Lombardi) or any of his cast mates. They are obviously laboring to the extent of their abilities under the direction of Bob Moss, all tackling roles for which they are far too young, inexperienced, or both to genuinely credible. And were you seeing this Berkshire Theatre Group production in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where it premiered earlier this summer, or perhaps in a community theatre, you might be willing or able to overlook the locomotion that just isn't there. But Off-Broadway, which shares much of the Main Stem's offstage and onstage talent and frequently bestows it its shows (Hamilton, anyone?), and at the home base of Classic Stage Company, which routinely enlists world-class actors for its offerings, the standards are sadly but necessarily different. And when those standards are applied, this rendition looks pretty rickety.

For all its strengths as a piece of writing (in 1960 it tied The Sound of Music for Best Musical at the Tony Awards, and it won that year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama), Fiorello! is ultimately dependent on your love for Fiorello and those in his orbit. He is a man, after all, who makes friends and enemies equally easy, and we see both types of people as he ascends by taking on the entrenched Tammany Hall power structure, falls back as he loses sight of what matters most, and then redoubles his resolve to make the city he loves right for everyone. The first song, unsubtly titled "On the Side of the Angels," is even sung by those in his law office in praise of his egalitarian efforts for the destitute and the disenfranchised. With scenes set in shadowy back rooms, on factory picket lines, and, eventually, among the disapproving upper crust, there must be something to temper the somewhat restrained but unmistakable moralizing.

Ideally, that would be Fiorello, who should be capable of playing the enterprising patriot who puts his life where his vote is by enlisting to fight in World War I, the avatar of the downtrodden, and the lover who enraptures (and captures) two women who can see him as more than just one or the other. But fusing all this together in a likable package is tricky, as Fiorello is humanized at least as much by his law associates, public adversaries, and personal friends (most notably the working-class Dora and Floyd, a secondary-comic couple of unusual prominence) as by anything he says and does; indeed, Fiorello sings very little, and cedes the stage so often to others that you're left with no choice but to see how others construct his story for them. It's not hard to see how the original lead, Tom Bosley (a couple of decades away from his career-defining turn on Happy Days), could have bridged these gaps, but it's not something everyone is likely to be able to do.

Lombardi tries tirelessly, but never really gets in the vicinity. He's all rough edges and no soft center, which makes his Fiorello vague at best and unlikable at worst—something that becomes a problem for a character that must increasingly broken as the show progresses. More important, there's no igniting spark beneath it all; Lombardi sings more than well enough, but comes across as leaden and mechanical, as though he's expending undue effort to bring incompatible pieces together. Except when his stiffness and Fiorello's sense of duty appropriately collide in the WWI send-off number, "Till Tomorrow," his performance is neither integrated nor ingratiating.

Even so, he's the best of the principals, the rest of whom act primarily (if not exclusively) through thick, silly accents that obscure any emotional truth or rigorous training that may lie beneath. (I'll refrain from naming any of them here.) Little better are Michael Callahan's dopey and repetitive choreography; Carl Sprague's sets, which have a cheap, cartoony look that's always at odds with the more serious story; and the tiny band, consisting of a violinist and two keyboards under Evan Zavada, sounds unsurprisingly chintzy. The costumes (David Murin) and lights (Matthew E. Adelson), however, are acceptable if undistinguished, and with his staging, Moss makes the most of what he has to work with.

That's something, I suppose, but it's not much, especially in New York, where there's a suffocating amount of amazing theatre available year-round, and where the admittedly imperfect, but better-cast and better-sounding, 2013 Encores! mounting of this musical is still fresh in the memory. Newcomers can and do succeed—all the time, in fact—but by playing within, and occasionally exploding, this unforgiving climate's rules—Moss and his crew just don't do that. They hardly dampen the legacy of the real LaGuardia—that's all but inviolable, at least around these parts—but that's because his actions were titanic and transformative enough to ensure he'd be remembered. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort can be said about this Fiorello!.

Through October 7
The East 13th Street Theater, 136 East 13th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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