by Samuel L. Leiter
Maybe one day there’ll be a Lindsay! or a Koch! (John! or Ed! don’t cut it) but to date there have been only two Broadway musicals devoted to New York mayors, a not particularly charismatic breed if recent examples are any gauge. One was a 1962 flop called Jimmy, about scandal-plagued Jimmy Walker who ruled Gotham from 1925-31; the other was 1959’s Fiorello!, a hit about Walker’s successor, the feisty, incorruptible, pint-sized, showman-like Fiorello H. LaGuardia, a Republican who served three terms from 1934-45 and gave his name to what has become the city’s worst airport. Walker doesn’t appear in Fiorello!, but his personality is celebrated in “Gentleman Jimmy” (sung by Maureen Glessner), so you nearly get two hizzoners for the price of one.
Fiorello! won—controversially—the Pulitzer Prize, becoming the third musical to do so since the prize was first awarded (there have six more since then). It also snared four Tonys, including Best Musical (shared with The Sound of Music), and ran 796 performances, after which its local history included only a two-week revival and two warmly received staged concert versions. Now, nearly 57 years since it opened, Fiorello!, in a production originally done by the Berkshire Theatre Group, has arrived at the East 13th Street Theater. And it’s a letdown.
Fiorello!, a quintessential New York musical, captures a fondly remembered time and place, making points about political machinations and things like equal pay for women that remain salient today. It gets great mileage from its depiction of a bunch of amusingly raffish backroom pols led by thick-voiced, Republican strongman Ben Marino (Rylan Morsbach). They have three songs, including the terrific “Politics and Poker” and “A Little Tin Cup”; the latter’s take on what’s now called “spin” is as biting as ever.
The show is performed on Carl Sprague’s flexible set of movable cutouts of famous Manhattan buildings scattered about on a floor covered with laminated newspaper pages; it’s also smartly dressed by David Murin in an abundance of period costumes. We first hear Mayor LaGuardia (Austin Scott Lombardi) famously reading the funnies over the radio, after which the show flashes back to 1915 when he was an up- and-coming Greenwich Village attorney.
We observe his career as a reform-oriented congressman, his stint as a hero flyer in World War I, his involvement in a women’s rights case, and his plunge into mayoral politics, when he was defeated by Walker. When the curtain falls, though, he’s on the verge of winning the 1933 election.
Fiorello’s romantic life plays a big role as well, centering on his first wife, Thea (Rebecca Brudner), who dies, and his second, Marie (Katie Birenboim), the faithful secretary who waits 15 years to land him. A subplot follows the love life of Dora (Chelsea Cree Groen) and Floyd (Dan Cassin), the dumbbell cop whose career arc leads to their living in a penthouse.
Despite 14 songs, however, there are long spaces, especially in Act II, when the book dominates; without first-class actors to carry the biography along it loses momentum as we wait for the next song. Only a handful of these are the kind non-musical theatre fanboys are likely to appreciate, my own favorites being the politicians’ songs and the lilting hesitation waltz, “Till Tomorrow,” which I’m still humming. I suspect the other numbers would have been better served had the orchestra not been restricted to two pianos and a barely audible violin. Good as many of these songs are, Harnick and Bock wouldn’t reach their pinnacle until a bit later, in Fiddler on the Roof.
Even with doubling, there were well over 50 performers in the original, which clearly would be impossible today, so director Bob Moss’s respectable production (with standard choreography by Michael Callahan) arranges Jerome Weidman and George Abbott’s book to accommodate around 20, itself exceptional for Off Broadway. However, everyone looks far too young, and no one has either the gravitas or rough edges to embody the older roles or the versatility called for when playing several. Given the show’s gangsterish background, it’s like watching Bugsy Malone, in which prepubescent actors played mobsters and molls, only now they look like college kids.
There are some fine female voices, but, most of the acting is only passable; no one is truly distinctive, but Groen and Morsbach show great promise. There’s an especially big hole where LaGuardia himself should be. Lombardi, like the mayor, is bantam-sized, but whereas the Little Flower was dumpy and plain, Lombardi is wiry and good-looking. The original’s Tom Bosley, who won the Tony (in his Broadway debut), not only looked like LaGuardia, he spoke like him. What should be a musical highlight, when LaGuardia sings his campaign song, “The Name’s LaGuardia,” in English, Italian, and Yiddish, produces no post-performance bounce.
Republican or not, if Fiorello LaGuardia were running for office today, I’d be more likely to vote for him than for this underage revival of his life story.
East 13th Street Theater (Classic Stage Company)
136 E. 13th St., NYC
Through October 7
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).