Fighting the power: the cast of NYSTIs Fiorello!
By James Yeara
by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, music by Jerry Bock,
lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, directed by Patricia Birch, musical
direction by Michael A. Musial
New York State Theatre Institute, through Feb. 4
Nothing musically is more appropriate this election year than
hearing the stirring ode to smoke-filled backrooms, “Politics
and Poker,” from the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning 1959 musical
Fiorello! As done in the New York State Theatre Institute’s
sagely staged concert-hall production, the almost picaresque
biography of the mythic Fiorello LaGuardia’s early career
as a reformer, congressman, and mayor of New York City whirls
around the stage at full speed. Legendary director Patricia
Birch keeps the pace fast and her large cast focused and belting
throughout this two-hour show, keeping this behemoth of a
musical trim and brisk.
Done in two acts, with 20 scenes that span LaGuardia’s career
from 1915 to his election as mayor of New York in 1933, in
locales from Greenwich Village to Washington, D.C., to Italy
and more stops in between than a gypsy cab, Fiorello!
could have been as bloated and tardy as a state budget. By
utilizing Richard Finkelstein’s exact unit set—a 19th-century
New York concert hall done in warm green earth tone with plaster
harp reliefs and molding and a large “Fiorello!” on the false
proscenium, with upstage pillars framing what turns out to
be a rear projection screen—Birch keeps Fiorello! marching
determinedly. As determinedly, in fact, as the strikers of
the Ladies’ Waistmakers Union: In one of the more stirring
scenes, LaGuardia protects the threatened workers, leading
them to fill the stage in Les Miz fashion, forming
a redoubt of bristling pickets during the singing of “Unfair.”
If any reform-minded challenger to an incumbent corporate-stooge
president is looking for a theme song, “Unfair” is it.
Several songs and stagings stir with surprising relevancy;
with Finkelstein’s changing black-and-white period photos
or drawings upstage, Fiorello! keeps the focus on the
characters and their lives. “The Name’s LaGuardia” is sung,
by the entire cast, in exuberant bursts worthy of Howard Dean.
The concert hall setting allows the large cast to shine, and
the audience’s attention is on the singing and LaGuardia’s
story, not on an excess of stagecraft. It’s a nice change
in a NYSTI musical.
And it’s also the story that is refreshing. As with NYSTI’s
excellent Born Yesterday in November, Fiorello!
explores politics knowingly. (NYSTI is an organization that
knows politics intimately.) This gives pop and levels of nuance
to “Politics and Poker,” which shines in the crafty hands
of polished performer Joel Aroeste as political maven Ben
Marino, whose glee at political posturing and maneuvering
should be rewarded with his name emblazoned on a stadium or
two. Yet even with the excellence of the staging, the perfection
of Lloyd Waiwaiole’s period costumes (though in what should
be a sizzling “Gentleman Jimmy,” a production number on the
excess of corrupt mayor Jimmy Walker, the excess of the chorus
girls’ cloaks leaves them decidedly unsizzly in what functions
as velvet and sequined burkas) and the energy of the huge
cast, it’s LaGuardia’s larger-than-life life that is most
memorable. It is amazing given current politics to find that
LaGuardia was a Republican fighting for the rights of workers
to unionize and opposed corporate greed—one of LaGuardia’s
1920’s quotes, “the stock market will soon fall to pieces
because greed is an obsession with the rich,” adorns the upstage
screen during intermission—and, most remarkable, that when
he urged his country to wage war, he then enlisted and fought.
Seeing the highlights of a non-chicken-heart republican is
reason alone to attend NYSTI’s excellent Fiorello!