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Theatre in Review: Fiorello! (Berkshire Theatre Group at East 13th Street Theater)

Rebecca Brudner. Photo: Alexander Hill

What with acclaimed Broadway revivals of Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me, along with an Off Broadway run of Rothschild and Sons, a revised version of The Rothschilds, it's safe to say that this is the best year Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick have enjoyed since 1972, the year they ended their creative partnership. (Harnick, the surviving member of the duo -- hale and hearty at 92 -- has been very much with us, clearly happy to once again be part of the current Broadway scene.) With this in mind, Berkshire Theatre Group opted to bring in its production, from this past summer, of Fiorello!. It's a handsome piece, filled with talented young people, but it would have been better left in the Berkshire Hills.

Fiorello! is unlikely to get a Broadway revival, for several reasons. For one, its title character, the beloved New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, no longer casts a shadow over the city's political scene. Also, even though it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1960, Jerome Weidman's book, written with George Abbott, who also directed, long ago began showing signs of arthritis. Indeed, it's a standard George Abbott musical of the period, with all the formulaic touches: a lead romantic triangle, a pair of comic second leads, and, when the second act starts to run out of gas, an irrelevant (if delightful) production number -- in this case, the raucous Broadway Charleston "Gentleman Jimmy."

Bock and Harnick's score is nearly as good as those for Fiddler and She Loves Me, and it's always a pleasure to hear it again. But the piece was probably best served by its 2013 concert staging at Encores!, accompanied by a full complement of musicians playing the original orchestrations. The two-piano (plus violin) arrangement, by Evan Zavada, used for this production has it charms, but clearly something has been lost.

The biggest problem with this Fiorello! is the cast -- bright, fresh-faced young people, graduates of fine drama schools and trained in all the requisite musical theatre skills. Put them in an early Jerome Kern piece -- say, Leave It to Jane -- and you would have the makings of an entertaining evening. Here, they thoroughly fail to suggest the rough-and-tumble New York of the early twentieth century -- a city filled with immigrants, union organizers, ward heelers, crooked cops, and gum-chewing chorus girls. In many cases, the performers seem roughly half the ages of the characters they are asked to play.

This is perhaps most evident in the numbers "Politics and Poker," "The Bum Won," and "Little Tin Box." As the show's book follows the rise and fall (and rise again) of LaGuardia, these numbers, delivered by the Republican party chief and his cronies, provide a sardonic running commentary on New York in the days of Tammany Hall. They cry out for a quartet of rough-looking character actors, and Rylan Morsbach, as Ben, and his onstage companions don't remotely fill the bill. Michael Callahan's choreography only further makes them look like chorus boys.

I saw Matt Caccamo, who plays Fiorello at matinees; an affable presence, he never suggests the driven figure who fights ferociously for his clients, charms his way into public office, then pays a price for his unimpeachable honesty. Without a force-of-nature Fiorello, the musical seems a rather too-placid, even slightly lumbering, affair. (The original production made Tom Bosley a star. In the Encores! version, Danny Rutigliano had all of the requisite grit and pep.) As Thea, LaGuardia's first wife, Rebecca Brudner offers a lovely rendition of "When Did I Fall in Love?," the show's finest ballad; she also contributes nicely to the touching, melancholy farewell waltz, "Till Tomorrow." The role of Marie, LaGuardia's faithful secretary, who stands around, casting longing glances in his direction for a decade and a half, is a tough sell for modern audiences. Katie Birenboim's performance is spunky enough to keep Marie, one of the tougher roles in the musical theatre canon, from seeming like a total doormat; if she does reasonably well by her two comic numbers, "Marie's Law" and "The Very Next Man," her singing is a little shrill at times. The rest of the performances are notably lacking in much-needed flavor; the company makes surprisingly little out of the script's humor.

The best thing about this production is its design, especially Carl Sprague's set, which deploys a series of iconic, if human-sized, skyscrapers against a deck that appears to be a collage of period newspaper headlines. Matthew E. Adelson's lighting adds welcome splashes of color. David Murin's costumes are marvelously detailed and well-observed, contrasting the styles of the mid-teens with those of the early '30s. Brendan F. Doyle's sound design is sometimes just a little too present in terms of reinforcement, but most of the time it is quite natural; he also provides key effects, especially in the opening sequence, in which LaGuardia reads from the newspapers on the radio.

I suppose that a revival of Fiorello! was inevitable in this year of Bock and Harnick, and the score always pleases. But next time we get it, can the adults be included? -- David Barbour

(21 September 2016)

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