Sunday, 2 October 2016

FIORELLO produced by the Berkshire Theatre Group at the East 13th Street Theatre

     In many ways this production of FIORELLO, enjoyable as it was, reinforced one's sense of the artifice of musicals. Brecht would have loved the audience awareness of the gap between character and actor. First of all, there was the very young cast, too young for the roles they play. Most were just out of college making their professional debuts. The production couldn't help but remind me of all the student produced and performed musicals I saw during my years teaching theatre at Duke. There are a lot of well-trained young performers who better deserved a shot at an Off-Broadway debut than some of these kids. The leads were game but, with a few exceptions, didn't yet have enough personality of their own to  give color to their roles. In the original production, the cast was comprised of seasoned veteran character performers. Here we had youngsters with a wide range of talent or relative lack of same. Austin Scott Lombardi is going to be a good performer when he finds his persona and when he does something about a high speaking voice that gets irritating after a while in such a long role. He has presence but he's too good looking to play this role. FIORELLO was first played by Tom Bosley who went on to become a television sitcom actor (HAPPY DAYS). Lombardi is still in the "juvenile lead" category. Matt McLean is the strongest man in the cast, giving an honest portrayal of LaGuardia's loyal Jewish sidekick. In the original production, this was played by Broadway stalwart Nathaniel Frey, who specialized in goofy roles. Frey was a bit chubby, homely and had a deep, funny voice. He specialized in playing sweet men who weren't too bright. McLean had leading man good looks and a good singing voice, but found a way to make sense of the role. The constant phone calls from his unseen wife weren't played as gags as they were in the original production, but as a problem for a man who couldn't balance career and home life. Ryan Morsbach is a generation too young to play the cynical old political hack (veteran Howard da Silva was brilliant in the original production), but he made the most of his big moments. Rebecca Brudner has a lovely singing voice, but no one can make much of the underwritten character of LaGuardia's first wife. Katie Birinboim pushed too hard in the wonderful eleven o'clock song, "The Very Next Man."
      Then there was the musical staging. FIORELLO is an odd combination of musical and play (more on that anon). So much of it is comprised of well crafted book scenes that it is a shock when, for instance, old political hacks get up from the poker table to dance during numbers like "Politics and Poker" or "Little Tin Box." To do so breaks character and weakens the political satire. These satirical numbers are  among the strongest in the show and should be played in character. The movement seemed forced, particularly since Michael Callahan's choreography throughout the show was mediocre and the dancing not very good. Bob Moss's staging is fluid and effective though everyone needed more character work.
       FIORELLO is a battle between two narrative threads. The story of Fiorello LaGuardia's rise from lawyer-champion of the poor to congressman to war hero to mayor of New York is the strongest thread. The musical numbers that chart LaGuardia's rise are witty and winning. Then there's the inevitable love story of the faithful colleague who waits fifteen years to get her man and the less well written story of LaGuardia's romance of his first wife, who dies young. The love plot(s) generates two songs, both, oddly, in the second act; first wife Thea's ballad, "When Did I Fall in Love," and Marie's clever "The Very Next Man." However, one feels that the romance is there because it is a necessary convention, not because it is essential to the story. This is even more true of the relationship between Dora, a striking seamstress, and Floyd, the cop who arrests her, then marries her. Dora and Floyd are shoehorned into the musical because in 1959 the show needed a dance number and a leading dancer. Dora's song, "I Love a Cop," is delightful but tangential. Even more tangential is the dance break that follows it. In the original production, Dora was played by Pat Stanley, a good dancer who often got these novelty songs in 1950s musicals. The women get fine songs, but the romances seem more obligatory than essential. The same is true to a lesser extent of HAMILTON where the real interest is on the men, not the women; the rivalries and politics, not the romance. One of the odd aspects of the show, and one of its weaknesses, is that Fiorello doesn't sing much and what he does sing is weaker than the rest of the score (his forgettable second act soliloquy was not included in the original cast album--for good reason). It's a part written for a non-singer back when non-singers often carried musicals (Yul Brynner, Rex Harrison, Robert Preston). Mr. Lombardi can sing quite well, so one notices the absence of much for him to do. It's hard to carry a musical when your character isn't musical.
      This is the third Bock-Harnick musical to get a New York revival this year. There was Bartlett Sher's beautiful revival of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (still running) and Scott Ellis's perfect revival of SHE LOVES ME. This production is nowhere near on that level, but it reminds on how good FIORELLO's score is. The singing throughout is quite good. I did miss a decent sized band. Here there are two pianos and a violin.
      Worth seeing if you've never seen FIORELLO or if, like me, you love the score and were hungry for a revival.

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