Wednesday, September 28, 2016

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

This review of Fiorello! at The East 13th Street Theater was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens 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

Fiorello! is a musical based on the life of Fiorello H. LaGuardia (the 99th Mayor of the City of New York who served from 1934 to 1945), a reform Republican who took on the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. It covers the period of his life from the time he was a successful attorney in Greenwich Village (1915) to his election as Mayor (1933). Not all the facts of his life represented in this musical are accurate and some were changed for dramatic effect. Fiorello! opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre on November 23, 1959, moved to The Broadway Theatre on May 9, 1961, and closed on October 28, 1961 after 795 performances. The show won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Tom Bosley) and Best Direction of a Musical (George Abbott). It also won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A brief revival was launched on June 13, 1962 at the New York City Center closing on June 24, 1962 after only 16 performances. A staged concert production of Fiorello! was performed at the first New York City Center's Encores! concert series in February 1994, and then again in January 2013 to celebrate the 20th season of the series. The Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) launched this new production of Fiorello! at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in June & July 2016. It is that production that has transferred to The East 13th Street Theater. 

Fiorello H. LaGuardia apparently blamed his father's death on "exploiters" and "profiteers" who sold spoiled food to soldiers during the Spanish-American War. As an attorney, he was committed to helping the underprivileged (most of the time pro bono) including women who were striking against the Nifty Shirtwaist Factory for "a living wage." Some of those women were arrested by corrupt police officers for loitering and for soliciting. The ambitious future Mayor saw representing them as an opportunity to build his reputation as a man of the people. It didn't hurt that he was half-Italian and half-Jewish (although Episcopalian) given the make-up of his Congressional District, which had historically been dominated by the Democrats and the Tammy Hall political machine. But LaGuardia organized the Jewish and Italian communities into their own political clubs and became a powerful political force in his own right. Morris, his assistant, would often say LaGuardia would represent anyone in need. He said, "I've yet to see the meek inherit the earth, but we inherit them." When challenged by Jews that he spoke too much about his Italian heritage and almost never regarding his Jewish heritage, LaGuardia responded, "If a man is only half-Jewish, it isn't enough to brag about." A flippant remark no doubt but humorous enough to endear himself to the Jews in his district. He won his congressional seat, served in the Army (Major LaGuardia), married Thea (of Italian Catholic background), ran for Mayor and lost, married Marie and got elected Mayor on a Fusion Ticket. The one scene that brought me to tears was when Fiorello fired his assistant Marie and then asked her to marry him. Marie had remained single refusing to put down the torch she carried for him. When the oblivious Fiorello proposed, he said, "I think you can learn to love me." to which she responded, "I think I can. I've been practicing for 15 years."  

The orchestra consisted of two keyboards and a violin. This fact did not in any way detract from the success of the production. In fact, Evan Zavada, the music director, performs what seems like magic playing the score in all its richness without ever dropping a note. He is joined by Robert Frost on the second keyboard and by the talented Alev Gokce Erem on violin. David Murin deserves credit for the period costumes and Michael Callahan's choreography was imbued with the spirit of the original 1959 Broadway production. Carl Sprague did wonders with the set having newspaper headlines laminated onto the stage floor (to be highlighted when relevant) and bringing human size skyscrapers on the stage to have the audience feel as if they were in New York City. Of course, the audience was not only in Manhattan surrounded by those very skyscrapers but they were also in the East Village, where Fiorello LaGuardia had his law office. I was very impressed with how efficiently the set was used to illustrate different settings.  

Many of the actors in this production are very young. However, the problem with some cast members was not their youth but with how they performed, the quality of their vocal instruments, and most noticeably, the way some of the actors absolutely butchered the accents they were trying to imitate - and when I say butcher, I mean it! I would sometimes cringe in pain whenever some of the actors opened their mouths to speak. I would actually have preferred listening to fingernails being scraped against a chalkboard. The audience was subjected to a non-stop roller-coaster ride of unpleasant sounds. The biggest offender was Rylan Morsbach, who played Ben Marino, the backroom Republican Party boss who spent his time in "smoke-filled rooms" playing poker and being a power broker. He absolutely ruined one of my favorite songs, Little Tin Box, by using four different failed accents - each worse than the other ("It mounted up Your Honor bit by bit." to which the boys responded, "UP YOUR HONOR BIT BY BIT!"). The same crime was committed by Rebecca Brudner, Fiorello's first wife, who was supposed to be speaking with an Italian accent. I am partly of Italian descent and I can say with certainty her Italian accent was so mangled it was completely unrecognizable to me. Dan Cassin, who played Floyd, the corrupt cop, had the same problem but was marginally more tolerable to listen to. 

Austin Scott Lombardi, a short, thin Italian was totally miscast as Fiorello ("fiorello" in Italian means "little flower" which accounts for his nickname The Little Flower). First, he doesn't physically look anything like LaGuardia. Second, he couldn't hit many of his notes without visibly gasping for a second breath. Third, while his character was supposedly loved for taking legal cases without demanding payment, he didn't come across as a likable, charismatic guy. His character appeared more self-absorbed, conceited, and cocky than the real Fiorello LaGuardia was reported to be. If I were bringing Fiorello! to an Off-Broadway Theater with the hope of moving it to Broadway, I would have re-cast a few of the key roles and would have made certain my lead had the talent, ability and stage presence to carry the show. Instead, I will be surprised if this production of Fiorello! outlives its expected run at this theater. 

That having been said, I really did enjoy this production of Fiorello!. First, there are the marvelous songs that haven't been heard outside of High School or Community Theater for many years. I particularly enjoyed "Politics & Poker," "Gentleman Jimmy," "Home Again," "On The Side Of The Angels," "I Love A Cop," and "When Did I Fall In Love." You also might remember "The Name's LaGuardia" (L-A-G-U-A-R-D-I-A). There are also some excellent performances in the production that are worth seeing. Matt McLean, who played Morris is not only very funny (especially his constant fighting with his wife about what time he will be home for dinner) but successfully exhibits a whole range of emotions which showcase his acting abilities. Chelsea Cree Groen as Dora, the gal who loves a cop, has a marvelous voice and a very charismatic stage presence. You take note when she is in a scene. Dan Cassin, the corrupt police officer (with an opinion on whether a molar would dissolve overnight if left in a glass of Moxie), has a strong voice and fine acting skills. Michael Sullivan is similarly powerful as Neil, another of LaGuardia's inner-circle employees who is sent on a mission to prevent thugs from pulling a particular fire alarm. It will make sense when you see the play. Katie Birenboim does a fine job as Marie, LaGuardia's second wife, a long-suffering, patient and loyal ally. My final favorite actor was Drew Carr, who played Chadwick and one of the backroom party regulars who voted to give the Republican Nomination for Congress from the 14th C.D. to Fiorello H. LaGuardia. Although most of the supporting cast members were quite proficient, Mr. Carr really caught my eye as a standout performer with extraordinary talent.

It is not every day, every year or even every decade you get to catch a full-scale production of Fiorello! so I highly recommend you take this opportunity to see it. Sure, it's far from perfect but you will still have a very good time and be glad you went. The only thing missing, which would have added to everyone's enjoyment, was that Moxie, one of the first mass-produced soft drinks in the United States mentioned in the production, was not on sale at concessions. Moxie is a carbonated beverage (officially recognized by the State of Maine) flavored with gentian root extract originally patented in 1876 as Moxie Nerve Food and now on sale in cans and bottles as Moxie Original Elixir (also available in diet). Moxie costs about a dollar a can retail so if there was any contractual prohibition against selling it, given the high ticket price, the producers could have given a can to every attendee as a parting gift. Well, that's what I would have done.

Fiorello! runs through Friday, October 7, 2016. Tier A Premium Tickets (2nd & 3rd Rows) cost $99.00 ($103.46 with service charge). Tier A Tickets cost $79.00 ($82.76 with service charge). Tier B (Side Stage Seats) Tickets cost $59.00 ($62.06 with service charge). For more information and to purchase tickets, visit 

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