Jerome Weidman and George Abbott (Book); Jerry Bock (Music);
Sheldon Harnick (Lyrics)
|Colin Thomson & Cast Members|
In an age when daily we are hit with news about politicians at all levels who are racked with scandals, how refreshing it is to open the pages of history and discover there was once a lawyer-turned-mayor whose career was one of seeking justice for the underdogs of society – including the first women to ever go on strike for better working conditions. What’s more, this same man who sided with labor, helped down-and-out recent immigrants, and fought the corrupt, controlling political machine of New York called Tammany Hall was actually a Republican. (Yes, lest we forget, there were once liberal Republicans.)
42nd Street Moon helps lift our spirits and raise our hopes for better political times and politicians in their timely revival of the winner of 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony for Best Musical, Fiorello! Based on the life of New York’s three-term mayor (1934-1945) whose name now is that of an airport the whole world recognizes, Fiorello Enrico La Guardia, the Moon’s production of Fiorello! provides us a romping, rousing, rambunctious (and even romantic) glimpse of a man still touted as one of America’s best-ever mayors.
We learn a lot from a short opening scene about this Mayor known as the “Little Flower” as he describes over the radio in much detail and humor the daily comics because he does not want New Yorkers to miss their favorite serials during a newspaper strike. Already we clearly see that the short, rotund man in front of us (as played with great air by Colin Thomson) is big in every respect: mouth, gestures, and heart. When the scene and time shifts to his law office in 1915, we can begin to believe that this guy might be the real thing as his staff sings his praises in an enthusiastic, exuberant “On the Side of the Angels,” touting, “My life will be selfless and pure, like Upton Sinclair, working with this man on the side of the angels.”
The musical’s book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott works best when its title character is front-and-center on stage. Colin Thomson’s energy electrifies the stage as probably the actual Fiorello did each time he entered a room. The big black hat that overpowers his head, the pants that he insists should be crumpled, and ties that are usually too short to cover his round belly are just part of the eccentric style he purposefully puts forth to make a point that he is just like his fellow New Yorkers – especially those whose accents and habits speak of home countries from the other side the ocean.
|Colin Thomson & Cast|
One of the most telling and entertaining numbers that Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) have created to tell ‘Hiz Honor’s’ story is one where Fiorello campaigns for Congress in 1916, using his speaking knowledge of several languages to sing in Italian and Yiddish to the ethic neighborhoods of his district, declaring boldy, “The Name’s LaGuardia”. Director Karen Altee Piemme’s staging of his street campaigning along with Jayne Zaban’s choreography allow Mr. Thomson to burst into a bigger-than-life presence amidst a fully assembled cast of seventeen as they quickly transform during his neighborhood forays from one ethnicity to another in song and dance. During the final foot-stomping, arm-linking series of Jewish dances, the big-smiling, nibble-footed Fiorello places himself in the center, for a moment as if he were in the streets of a shetel in Eastern Europe.
|Ben Marino & Cast Members|
While Fiorello is quite a force on his own, his entrance into politics (first in congress and later as mayor) is aided by those in control of the local Republican Party who choose him as their candidate. Their leader, Ben Marino, and his back-room cohorts provide a funny look at how exasperating their task is to choose someone that surely will only lose against the oft-corrupt, decades-dominant of the democratic Tammany Hall. To the ‘omm-pah-pah’ beat of the kind of waltz one might hear sung and danced in a local beer hall, Chris Vettel as Ben Marino leads his card-betting cronies in “Politics and Poker” -- a number a bit silly in its simple, barroom-like choreography, but a fun one bringing big audience appreciation and applause.
Ben becomes a loyal Fiorello friend and campaign leader, with he and his cohorts returning for two other of the musical’s most hilarious and telling numbers about back-room, New York politics and the times’ judicial corruption and payoffs (“The Bum Won” and “Little Tin Box”). Mr. Marino brings a high-spirited, rip-roaring set of lungs and expressions to deliver his sung numbers while also a loyalty that gets severely tested as Fiorello’s successes and fame begin to inflate the politico’s head to make even his big, black hat seem too small to cover it.
Where sometimes the two-hour, forty-five minute evening (including intermission) loses some energy is in the focus on some of the tangential characters of the Fiorello story. Unfortunately, these are often the female characters. A shirt-waist factory striker that Fiorello helps get out of jail on a trumped-up charge of soliciting (Dora played by Marisa Cozart) is called upon to justify why she falls in love with the cop who arrested her in a song (“I Love a Cop”) that goes nowhere and adds little-to-nothing about the story. Catrina Manahan plays a ditzy, squeaky voiced Mitzi who leads a line of equally high-voiced women in 1920s outfits in a tap-dancing song that also feels out of place and a distraction (“Gentleman Jimmy”). Fiorello’s wife, Thea (Amanda Johnson) steps forward to lead the company in singing a melodically sweet “Till Tomorrow” as the first act winds down with Fiorello going off to fight World War I; but the number is an overall energy drain on an otherwise fast-clipped, first half. (Ms. Johnson does open the Second Act singing in lovely Italian accent a number that is more redeeming, if not still a bit too long, “When Did I Fall in Love.”)
|Katrina Lauren McGraw|
Fortunately, one female character is given the opportunity to sing a couple of the evening’s most memorable numbers. Katrina Lauren McGraw is Fiorello’s loyal secretary, Marie -- bringing to the story a woman strong in spirit, opinion, and presence and one who clearly has feelings for her boss that she dare not speak of to him or anyone else. With the eye-twinkling, echoing help of fellow office mate, Morris (Matt Hammons), Marie lays down the laws she wants to see enacted on how men (especially husbands) should treat women in a now-dated but still charming “Marie’s Law.” The instinctive, comic abilities and the pipe-pumping buoyancy of Ms. McGraw’s vocals shine forth especially in one of the night’s best-delivered numbers, “The Very Next Man” -- one that sets the scene for a Fiorello victory she has truly been awaiting during her many years of service.
In this 42nd Street Moon production, Fiorello! is especially enlightening and educational due to the outstanding projections of scenic designer and artist, Brian Watson. The current years and locations of scenes are illustrated by actual, period photographs constantly changing and projected as a backdrop throughout the show. In addition, during scene changes, reproductions of New York Times or Washington Post front pages give us a running account of what was happening in the world during the 1915-1933 timeline of the musical. Along with the wide array of period and ethnic costumes of Merissa Mann that span the changing styles, times, and economies of the teens, twenties, and thirties, Brian Watson’s projected and scenic artistry greatly enhances the historical potential of this musical.
While not a perfect musical with its ventures into side stories not that well related to those of the title character himself, Fiorello! is well worth an evening’s venture into the political scenes of the past that too often mirror aspects of the worst of our own times while more importantly reminding us that reformers are present and possible in every age. 42nd Street Moon’s Fiorello! overall rises above some of the musical’s lesser qualities to give us an evening packed with cast talent and production ingenuity that is in the end both entertaining and educational.
Rating: 4 E
Fiorello! continues through March 17, 2019 in production by 42nd Street Moon at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at http://www.42ndstmoon.org or by calling the box office at 415-255-8207.
Photos by Ben Krantz Studio