February 2, 2013

"Fiorello" Makes an Unsuccessful Return

Sometimes you really can’t go home again. Encores!, the great concert series that celebrates the American musical, decided to celebrate its 20th season by going back to  Fiorello!, the first show it presented when the series started in 1994. It sounded like a good idea. 

The original 1959 Broadway production won three Tonys, tying with The Sound of Music for Best Musical (they both beat out Gypsy)  won the Pulitzer Prize and ran for 795 performances, an impressive showing in those days

 The original Encores! production featured an all-star cast that included Jerry Zaks, Faith Prince, Gregg Edelman, Liz Callaway, Philip Bosco and Donna McKechnie. It put the series on the map and in the heart of every musical theater lover. This new revival of a revival has some stars (Kate Baldwin, Shuler Hensley, Emily Skinner) but it left this theater lover cold.

Fiorello! charts the rise of Fiorello LaGuardia, the famed New York City mayor now best know for having both the airport and the city’s performing arts high school named after him. But, although barely 5 feet tall, LaGuardia was a giant political figure in his day and an irrepressibly charismatic guy.

The son of an Italian-Catholic father and a Jewish mother, he had crossover appeal in New York’s immigrant communities and was elected to Congress multiple times and to City Hall for three terms. A progressive Republican, he took on the corrupt Tammany Hall and unabashedly supported FDR’s New Deal. He became a beloved folk hero by reading the comics on the radio when the city’s newspapers went on strike. 

In short, LaGuardia's colorful life gave composer and lyricist Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick plenty of material to work with. And the book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, who directed the original production of Fiorello!, gave the show romantic appeal by weaving in the love stories of LaGuardia’s two marriages (click here to read a terrific piece about the making of the show). 
The roly-poly Tom Bosley, later known as the dad on TV’s Happy Days,” originated the role and, by all reports, was sensational. Although Zaks was probably a foot taller than LaGuardia and had already directed three hit productions (The House of Blue Leaves and the Lincoln Center revivals of The Front Page and Anything Goes) Encores! tapped him to play the part and he was, by all reports, sensational.  
Alas, Danny Rutigliano, a journeyman actor who has been given the title role in the current revival, is, at best, just run-of-the-mill

Short and round, Rutigliano bares a physical resemblance to LaGuardia and he works hard but he simply doesn’t have La Guardia’s star power. When Rutigliano finished the song “The Name’s LaGuardia,” at the performance my husband K and I attended, he sounded neither triumphant nor determined, but just relieved to have gotten through it.
Of course the Encores! productions have notoriously short rehearsal periods. In the early days, the cast carried, and used, scripts.  But the productions have become more elaborate over the years—adding fully choreographed numbers and costumes instead of the dark suits and cocktail dresses that the early participants wore. 

And, as any regular Encores! goer knows, the actors now make it a point to be off book and to put a little zing into their performances. Baldwin even hired a dialect coach to help with her character's Italian accent (click here to read an interview with her).  

Baldwin plays LaGuardia’s first wife, who died from tuberculosis two years after they married. She gets to sing the big second act ballad “When Did I Fall in Love.” And she sings the hell out of it. But, even putting aside her still shaky accent, the rest of Baldwin’s performance is pretty one note. 
There are a couple of performances that do have some zing. Adam Heller is amusingly wry as LaGuardia’s beleaguered campaign manager and Shuler Hensley seems to be having a fine time as the blustery political boss who is LaGuardia's closet ally. Hensley leads the male members of the ensemble in “Little Tin Box,” a jaunty song about political corruption that is one of this production’s few genuinely winning numbers.
But I suspect that what they did, they did on their own.  Because director Gary Griffin seems to have been totally at sea on this one, staging each scene as though it had nothing to do with the ones that came before or after it. 
I’m assuming that Griffin also signed off on costume consultant Jess Goldstein’s bewildering decision to dress the cast in turn of the 20th century garb for the first act and in contemporary dress for the second, which takes place just a few years later.  
“How many years were supposed to have gone by,” K asked as we tried to makes sense of what we’d seen over dinner at Milos, the Greek seafood restaurant a few doors down from New York City Center, where  the production will play through Sunday.
I wish Encores! had pulled out all the stops for this supposedly celebratory production. It should have gotten down on its knees and begged Nathan Lane to play LaGuardia and Donna Murphy and Kristin Chenoweth to play his wives (and I don’t care if they aren’t exactly age appropriate).
It should have implored Zaks to come back and direct the production and it should have thrown itself on the mercy of the very busy William Ivey Long (who in addition to his duties as chairman of the American Theatre Wing, has designed the costumes for the current productions of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella) and gotten him to do the costumes for the show.
After all, when you’re hosting a celebratory reunion, it’s time to break the bank, bring out the good china the expensive crrystal and put on the kind of show that people will remember for at least another 20 years. Otherwise, why do it?

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