Fiorello!

by Brooke Pierce

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday September 8, 2016

Austin Scott Lombardi as Fiorello LaGuardia
Austin Scott Lombardi as Fiorello LaGuardia  

Workers picketing for their right to fair wages. The contentious relationship between police and protesters. Political corruption run amok. These themes could be the stuff of a brand new stage drama, but currently they are front and center in a revival of a pretty old musical comedy, the 1959 tuner "Fiorello!," now playing at The East 13th Street Theater.

Created in the days when sticking an exclamation point at the end of a musical's title seemed like a legitimate way of generating excitement, "Fiorello!" is about a man who is well-known -- at least by name -- to East Coast flyers, Fiorello La Guardia. Aside from the heavily trafficked New York City airport, La Guardia is best known as one of the Big Apple's greatest mayors, defeating Tammany Hall and transforming city life for the better during his 1934 to 1945 tenure.

The musical, however, focuses on his ascent to that lofty position. It takes us from his early days as a do-gooder lawyer who fought for the little people to his successful campaign for Congress, his service in World War I, his initial unsuccessful run for mayor, and eventually his mayoral triumph. His relationships with political allies, political rivals, his employees, and the women who love him make the musical as much about the man as it is about his career.

More than 50 years old, "Fiorello!" features hallmarks of its era that aren't seen as often in new musicals, from charming little dance interludes to an unnecessary chorus girl number. But there's something very gratifying about seeing a musical that addresses social injustice and political corruption, but does it in a very lighthearted way -- and even gives you a little hope that something can be done about it. It's also fun to observe the differing politics of La Guardia's time (these days it's pretty hard to imagine a Republican candidate winning an election on the strength of his support for women workers on strike!).

"Fiorello!" has a lovely, often funny score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who are best known for writing the songs to "Fiddler on the Roof." There are handsome ballads like "Till Tomorrow," "Home Again," and "When Did I Fall in Love?," but comedic numbers like "Marie's Law" (in which La Guardia's assistant Marie opines that men shouldn't be allowed to be bachelors) and the hilarious "Little Tin Box" (a timeless takedown of crooked politicians pretending they got rich by simply saving their pennies) are pure gold.

This production of "Fiorello!" was originally part of the Berkshire Theatre Group's summer season and features a fresh-faced cast, many of whom are making their New York debuts. With such a young cast, fairly simple sets and staging, and a three-musician accompaniment, this "Fiorello!" feels a bit more like a very good college production than the kinds of splashy Broadway revivals of Golden Age musicals to which we've become accustomed. It's still terrifically charming and enjoyable, though, and expect to see the careers of Austin Scott Lombardi (Fiorello), Katie Birenboim (Marie), and Matt McLean (his other long-suffering assistant, Morris) flourish in the future.

Although "Fiorello!" is not quite as strong as many of the other often-produced musicals of the famed 1950s era, it's a great musical for this moment. At once timely and a window into another time altogether, it is a refreshing little tonic during this heated political season.

"Fiorello!" runs through October 7 at The East 13th Street Theater, 136 East 13th Street in New York City. For information or tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.