Monday, October 3, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of Fiorello! at The East 13th Street Theater by Dr. Thomas G. Jacoby

This review of Fiorello! at The East 13th Street Theater was written by Dr. Thomas G. Jacoby and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Book by Jerome Weidman & George Abbott
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Bob Moss
Choreography by Michael Callahan
Costume Design by David Murin
Scenic Design by Carl Sprague
Music Direction by Evan Zavada
The East 13th Street Theater
136 East 13th Street
New York, New York 10003
Reviewed 9/24/16

It is always a challenge to write about respected and cherished musicals. Fiorello!, currently at The East 13th Street Theater and presented by the Berkshire Theatre Group after a successful run in Massachusetts, meets all the criteria of one of these time-honored "cultural landmarks." The goal is to evaluate whether the musical itself has artistic merit by today's standards, whether it is relevant, and whether the revival production is worthy of our time.

The songs and the staging tell a story that is both popular and inspiring: a young lawyer, humble but ambitious, serves the public in early twentieth-century New York. He is an idealist who takes on clients whether they can pay or not, and expects everyone to receive equal treatment under the law. Fiorello LaGuardia undertakes the defense of striking workers at the Nifty Shirtwaist Factory with the hope that the resulting notoriety will benefit his congressional campaign, which it does. He runs for office with the blessing of the local Republican Party. His secretary is secretly in love with him, but he courts the beautiful strike organizer. While a congressman, he supports United States involvement in World War I and enlists as a fighter pilot when the U.S. does become involved. He returns from the war, marries the strike organizer, runs for mayor (and loses due to the entrenched corruption of Tammany Hall politicians), loses his wife, marries his former secretary, runs for mayor again on a fusion ticket, becomes a beloved New York City mayor and New York City lives happily ever after.

I suspect the audience of the early 1960s received this musical very differently from today's viewers. While patrons of this production remember 9-11, that audience probably had very strong memories of World War II. Some might have even remembered LaGuardia, the man, as opposed to LaGuardia, the legend. The idealism of the young that would reach its highest point in the "Summer of Love" in 1967 was probably already growing, and this is reflected in musicals like 1964's Man Of LaMancha, which made "tilting at windmills" a household expression. Yet, the idealism reflected in Fiorello! has resulted in few profound real-world changes. A hundred years later, machine politics and corruption are alive and well, the exploitation of workers and sweatshops remain in New York, and the United States continues to walk the line between isolationism and pro-active globalism when it comes to international affairs.

All this makes Fiorello! a wee bit quaint by today's standards. A lawyer is not the figure that springs to mind as a champion of the repressed in today's world. A song like "On The Side Of The Angels" wants to be sincere, but comes out as more tongue-in-cheek than it was probably originally intended. It's nearly impossible to take a line like "Do what he says, he's a lawyer, he knows what he's talking about" as anything other than period-appropriate patter. The police ballet interlude is cute but too in love with its "old-timeyness." This entire production is most often lit in shades of sepia, like old photographs, which is charming but also underlines the fact that the material is being taken as written, not as a modern and relevant piece. When Marie, the secretary, sings that she will marry "The Very Next Man," this is likely an homage to the 1950s number "Marry The Man Today" from Guys & Dolls, which was dropped from the 1955 film, but is a much stronger song than its Fiorello! counterpart. Then again, the dance of the naughty flappers in Floyd & Dora's penthouse was probably adorably dated even in 1959.

This is not to say this current production doesn't have some amazing strengths and modern moments. When one of the flapper Cuties squeaks her opinion of Mitzi Travers' song praising rival politician Gentleman Jimmy, one can imagine it coming just as readily from the mouth of a current reality show starlet on cable TV, "It was so moving, the words are...everything." The solo "When Did I Fall In Love?", beautifully and lovingly performed by Rebecca Brudner as Thea, has not a trace of irony and is every bit as modern a ballad as anyone could desire. The choreography of the scene changes, with cast members changing out and assembling the props from one scene to the next is seamless and perfectly timed. Some of the actors gave notable performances and I would like to see some of them become more active in the New York theater scene: Chelsea Cree Groen, who plays Dora, shows a remarkable range and stage presence, Dan Cassin as Floyd makes you wish the character had a greater role, and the aforementioned Rebecca Brudner and Maureen Glessner (who plays Mitzi), have amazing voices and dynamic control. Drew Carr, as Chadwick, and Matt McLean, as Morris, turn in convincing and believable performances.

Fiorello himself, Austin Scott Lombardi, is a bit of a disappointment, unfortunately. He runs out of breath in more than one of his solos, which is distracting. He is at his best when portraying a man stricken with grief over the death of his wife who must brace himself for adversity. Rylan Morsbach, who plays Ben Marino, has a stage accent poor enough to make one grit one's teeth, and Katie Birenboim, as Marie, had such poor diction in her first solo "Unfair" as to make me wonder if she had a speech impediment. The cast, in general, has some diction and accent issues they would do well to resolve: many of the lyrics are lost in "Politics & Poker" and even some in "Little Tin Box." This is unfortunate in any production, but particularly criminal in an amplified production with minimalist staging and sepia lighting because there's little to look at while one waits for the sounds to become more than unpleasant noise.

Overall, it's amazing to see a full staging of Fiorello! and most would probably enjoy seeing a professional production of a musical that has become fodder, mostly in excerpt form, for community theater, high school stages, and summer stock. Enjoy the songs and the dancing, see some very promising young talent and marvel at the fact so little has changed in the political scene in the last century.

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