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Fighting the power: the cast of NYSTI’s Fiorello!

For the People
By James Yeara

Book 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!

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