Fiorello!, Book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Music by Jerry Bock. Directed by Bob Moss. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
First Act Finale of Fiorello, Austin Lombardi and Rebecca Brudner (center); photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware.
"I'm not very good at expressing my feelings, but I'm good at making plans."
Austin Lombardi as Fiorello H. LaGuardia; photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware
Fiorello H. LaGuardia served New York City as its mayor from 1933 to 1945. During that time he cleaned up corruption, banned Burlesque and supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt's policies. He read the Sunday comics on the radio every week and was a much beloved figure. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1947 leaving his second wife to do what she traditionally had done, clean up after him. How she came to be his wife is part of the story told in the musical FIORELLO! currently on stage at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, MA, part of the Berkshire Theatre Group's community of stages.
A young company of players, accompanied by a solo piano and a violin, are presenting this Pulitzer Prize, Tony-Award winning show and, to my utter surprise, are doing a fine job in a small theater whose intimacy should work against a big Broadway musical. A cast of 18 players, many of them BTG apprentices, portray the panorama of personalities spanning the years from 1915 through 1932. They are aided by the period costumes designed by David Murin who has chosen to keep the clothing commonplace rather than extraordinary and in doing so he has given this show a reality that it very much requires. The show also profits from the unique setting provided by designer Carl Sprague (one caution, though - the Empire State Building wasn't built until 1931).
Director Bob Moss has brought a professional gloss to the show and the result is a shimmering, dancing, constantly active appearance which produces a highly professional show even though the acting is sometimes a bit off and edgey and not quite what it should be. Somehow you don't mind a line delivered without much meaning when everything around it seems so right. The cast, generally, does a very nice job of presenting characters in situations and the dialogue by novelist Jerome Weidman makes for very realistic personalities on stage. It is a shame that our hero, Fiorello, is such a handsome young man. The real LaGuardia was dumpy, lumpy and remarkably unattractive and it was the force of his personality that made him so attractive. Austin Lombardi is a sexy man, good looking and dapper and there is never a doubt that all will be attracted to him. Even so, he presents an honestly wrought character who sings well, dances nicely, acts the rude, angry, hostile, humane, and loving man with alacrity and ends up being the hero we would assume such a nice looking fellow to be. (The original actor in the role was a reasonably young Tom Bosley who, in 1960, was a fine variant on the original.)
There are two women in Fiorello's life, the Italian immigrant Thea, played here by Rebecca Brudner with an accent, and Marie portrayed by Katie Birenboim. Thea is the leader of a women workers strike against the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Marie is our hero's secretary. He finds himself caught up in their lives and other folks' as well, for he is a champion of the people. The show's plot takes us through LaGuardia's political career and both women play a part in this, even when he joins the armed forces in world war one and liberates Trieste as a gift to Thea who was born in that city. Both women sing very well, Brudner's soprano is approaching the operatic and that suits both her character and her music. Birenboim has a chest voice that is lovely and even an occasional pitch problem does not diminish her effectiveness as a musical performer. Both act well, although they both had some problems with line delivery that cause emotional moments to not play as they should. Both pair beautifully with Lombardi in scenes and songs.
Matt McLean is an excellent Morris and Rylan Morsbach is a perfect Ben, two characters who help Fiorello in his make or break careers. Michael Sullivan is charming as Neil. Amy Welch makes the most of her moments as Mitzi Travers singing "Gentleman Jimmy." Dan Cassin and Chelsea Groen are delightful together as Floyd and Dora. Groen, especially, brings joy with her rendition of "I Love a Cop."
Matthew E. Adelson provides perfect lighting for this show and Michael Callahan's choreography is almost the reason the play works so well. He has done an excellent job of making scene transitions a pleasure and keeping the show afloat during times when it could have dragged. Evan Zavada, the music director, plays piano accompaniment to perfection and Cindy Ogulnick's violin is an excellent and romantic addition to the show's overall texture.
I wasn't sure, when this show was announced, that it would work in this particular space. In my mind it was a big show, a Broadway show, needing a big space and big sound. I wish it wasn't miked for that did make for a few problems in the sound of the piece. However, that aside, the show is a delight, informative and musically rich, fascinating in its dramatic history and poignant in Fiorello's difficulty with emotional expression other than anger. His tenderness, always there, is part of the peculiar charm of the man and the play and the audience's ability to accept him - in his own time and even now. This production presents with honesty the whole person and its great to have him back in town, available to us in his own special way.
Katie Birenboim as Marie, Matt McLean as Morris; photo: Emma Rothberg- Ware
Fiorello! runs through July 23 in the Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre at 6 East Street, Stockbridge, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line to www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.