The Little Flower blooms again!
That was the audience’s enthusiastic response on Wednesday night to the Encores! Great American Musicals In Concert presentation of the Pulitzer-Prize winning 1959 musical "Fiorello!"
Rob Berman’s Encores! company picked the show to honor its own twentieth anniversary. They chose it because their tremendous run began with "Fiorello!"
It is the first time the group has ever presented a musical for the second time.
Loosely based on Ernest Cuneo’s book "Life With Fiorello" about the author’s experiences working with the reformist New York congressman and mayor who was affectionately known as the Little Flower, the show was the first successful musical to pair up composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick. This team would go on to write "She Loves Me" and "Fiddler On The Roof," among other bigger hits.
Since I wasn’t present for the first Encores production, which featured director Jerry Zaks as Fiorello LaGuardia, Philip Bosco as ward boss and LaGuardia ally Ben Marino, and Faith Prince and Elizabeth Futral as the women in the mayor’s life, I can’t say which is better.
I can put forward a good guess though that this production was better sung as it featured a quartet of Danny Rutigliano as the mayor, Shuler Hensley as Marino, Erin Dilley as the Mayor’s long-suffering gal-Friday Marie and Kate Baldwin as Thea, his first wife.
The leads were further complemented by such very fine singers as Jenn Gambatese, Andrew Samonsky and Emily Skinner in supporting roles.
This does not mean to say that the casting was perfect. The always amusing gentle giant Hensley sounded a bit worse for wear than he did in taking on lead roles in recent musicals like "Young Frankenstein," and Baldwin, a stunning redhead with a peaches and cream complexion, is about as credible as an Italian immigrant as Seth Rogen would be as an Eskimo.
But, if Hensley was not his usual self as a singer, he brought presence and charm. And Baldwin has a golden voice. Moreover, in heels she is appropriately towering, nearly a head taller than Rutigliano in the part of the diminutive Mayor who was half-Italian, half-Jewish and a practicing Episcopalian.
"Fiorello!" does not have as lovely a score as some of the shows that Encores has put on. One need only think for instance of "Charley’s Aunt" from two seasons ago to make such a comparison. But the show is compact and efficient.
Originally delivered by the producing team of George Abbott and Hal Prince, it runs barely over two hours, and every number in it is catchy and clever. In addition, it features a few genuinely beautiful songs, including "Till Tomorrow" and "When Did I Fall In Love."
Very much a product of the 1950s, its satire of the politics of the period running from just before the First World War through the onset of the Depression is far from edgy, but much of it still landed. The audience couldn’t help but laugh when Gambatese, playing a young woman in love with a police officer, declares that she would marry him if only he would get an honest job.
Nor did audience members have to know much about LaGuardia’s corrupt rivals Jimmy Walker and Judge Carter to get the jokes about their thieving. (For the record, after serving as the Mayor preceding LaGuardia, Walker had to flee the country to avoid the pending indictments against him, and Carter simply disappeared, presumably murdered by his confederates.)
A special standout among the supporting players was stage vet Adam Heller, playing LaGuardia’s ornery subordinate, Morris. Heller’s voice has something of sandpaper to it, but he gave this part consistent and delightful life every moment that he was on stage. And Dilley was equally if not more appealing.
One couldn’t but be reminded: Encores! is one of New York’s treasures.