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Review: Politics and old-style humor in 'Fiorello'

Friday - 2/1/2013, 3:14pm  ET

This Jan. 29, 2013 photo released by New York City Center shows Danny Rutigliano, center, and the cast during a performance of “Fiorello!” in the Encores! series at New York City Center in New York. (AP Photo/New York City Center, Joan Marcus)

JOCELYN NOVECK
AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- What goes around comes around. It's a key principle in politics, and apparently in musical theater, too.

In the 1940s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia saved the building that would become New York City Center from the wrecking ball. And so in 1994, when the Encores! series began there, it opened with a revival of "Fiorello!," the 1959 musical about the legendary New York mayor. And now, to mark its 20th anniversary, Encores! is reviving the musical again -- a production that is pleasing overall and contains a few priceless gems.

One of the curiosities of "Fiorello!" is that it won not only the 1960 Tony for best musical -- tying with "The Sound of Music" and, incredibly, beating out "Gypsy" -- but also the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a rare accolade for a musical.

Watching it now, one is hard pressed to understand why, even as one can easily appreciate the often impressive score by Jerry Bock and the truly clever lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. The problem is more with the book, by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott. For one thing, the show focuses not on LaGuardia's famous mayoralty, which lasted for three terms from 1934 to 1945, but on the pre-mayor phase of his career, when he was a lawyer helping the city's downtrodden and then a congressman.

It ends in 1933, just as LaGuardia has decided to run again for mayor, after failing once. That in itself is not a problem. But it's a failing of the book that the show ends so abruptly, you almost think the descending curtain is a mistake by the stage manager.

The book's flaws aside, though, this "Fiorello!" is still a treat for musical theater fans, and the sweetest part is the scrumptious performance of Shuler Hensley as Ben Marino, the Republican district leader with a growl in his voice and a cigar in his mouth. Hensley's best moment comes when he warbles his way with his cronies through "Little Tin Box," the clear highlight of the show, a charming little ode to dirty politics. Hensley succeeds here in large part because he doesn't oversell the song; there's no need to. It, and he, are already perfect.

As the title character, Danny Rutigliano has the requisite height -- or lack thereof (LaGuardia was 5-foot tall) and pugnacious demeanor. The only problem is that he doesn't mine the qualities of charm and charisma enough to make his two romances -- with beautiful women -- all that believable.

Speaking of those women, Kate Baldwin, as LaGuardia's first wife, Thea, wraps her lush soprano voice beautifully around the soaring "When Did I Fall in Love?," a meditation on how respect turns to affection, and more. And the appealing Erin Dilly, recently of "A Christmas Story," makes a sweet and affecting Marie, the aide who spends most of her time pining for the future mayor, and finally wins him at the end. (No fault of Dilly's, but Marie's single-minded pursuit of a wedding band is one of the more dated aspects of the book.)

This is clearly a time to be remembering legendary New York City mayors, with one of the most famous of them -- Ed Koch -- passing away on Friday. It's a worthwhile pursuit, then, to spend a few pleasant hours in the presence of one of his most celebrated predecessors. You won't regret it.

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Online

http://www.nycitycenter.org


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