Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The show is one long flashback, beginning with a brief scene in which LaGuardia is reading the comics to New Yorkers gathered around their radios because a strike by newspaper distributors prevents the papers from being delivered. It's a lovely moment and Colin Thomson brings a sweet, fatherly air to the scene. (Against a quite attractive set design from Brian Watson.)
But soon we are thrust back in time to LaGuardia's early years as a lawyer with a reputation for helping the downtrodden and disenfranchised. In the opening number, "On the Side of the Angels," the citizens of New York celebrate his good works in a hagiographic paean to his beneficence. This is the New York of Tammany Hall, where the fix was always in and who you knew (or could bribe) seemed to hold more sway than the rule of law. After helping spring union leader Thea (Amanda Johnson) from jail on false charges of solicitation while leading a strike against shirtwaist sweatshops, LaGuardia is persuaded to run for Congress from New York's 14th districtdespite the fact no Republican (apparently some Republicans once stood up for working people) had ever won that seat.
He (spoiler alert) wins, but neither his career nor his personal life is an uninterrupted upward arcand not all of the tragedies that befell him are represented here (his first child died before reaching her first birthday), but there's still plenty of drama (book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick), including a stint in the service during World War I.
The cast assembled by director Karen Altree Piemme acquit themselves quite well, despite a few stumbles, especially in terms of how they play the comedic aspects of the show. Whether it was poor timing or inadequate physicality, they had little luck finding the laughs in the text at the performance I attended. Fortunately, as a chorus they are quite strong: bold and brassy, harmonizing well and hitting their notes with just the right added emphasis.
As Thea, who becomes LaGuardia's first wife, Amanda Johnson has a lovely soprano, and a little trouble with her Italian accent. Knowing almost nothing about the show, when she first speaks, I thought she was supposed to be Irish, and in the second act she seems to offer a mix of Italian, Irish and Russian accents. But Thomson's portrayal of LaGuardia is energetic and appropriately alpha male. He swaggerseven when he appears once without his pants, exposing his gartered socks and hairy legs.
The standout in the cast, however, is Chris Vettel as Republican politico Ben Marino. Although he doesn't have a classically rubbery face, Vettel somehow manages to find the perfect expression for every moment, and brings a marvelous focus and intensity to every scene he is in. His connection with his scene partners is never less than perfectly focused and intense, and his big voice is a highlight of the evening, especially in the terrific act two number, "Little Tin Box," which also features the best of Jayne Zaban's choreography.
It's clear LaGuardia was a larger than life character, and it's easy to see why he was so beloved by New Yorkers. I just wish this production had more of LaGuardia's swagger and Chris Vettel's performing skills.
42nd Street Moon's Fiorello!, through March 17, 2019, at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 6:00 p.m., with matinees Sundays at 3:00 p.m., and a Saturday matinee March 9 at 1:00 p.m. Tickets are $30-$75, available at 42ndStreetMoon.org, or by calling 415-255-8207.