Review: ‘Fiorello!’

There are eons of evolutionary strata separating the lovable but dimly lit boxer-cabbie Tony Banta ("Taxi") from the brilliant and aggressive little gadfly Fiorello LaGuardia, who rose to become mayor of New York.

There are eons of evolutionary strata separating the lovable but dimly lit boxer-cabbie Tony Banta (“Taxi”) from the brilliant and aggressive little gadfly Fiorello LaGuardia, who rose to become mayor of New York. Tony Danza makes the transition from his best-known role with aplomb in this bare-bones but dynamic reprise: Broadway’s Best in Concert revival of the 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that also took top Tony and N.Y. Drama Critics’ Circle honors. Director Glenn Casale keeps this chronicle of Fiorello’s rise to power simple and crisp, wisely putting his faith in the marvelously intelligent and witty George Abbott/Jerome Weidman book, and the infectious songs of Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics). Danza charges right to the heart of this colorful character, ably supported by an outstanding ensemble.

Trim and fit Danza cuts a more svelte figure than the show’s originator, Tom Bosley, who was an amazing physical match to the roundish LaGuardia. But Danza captures the pugnacious, driving ambition of the little lawyer of Italian and Jewish heritage, who combined a fiercely intense integrity with an unwavering belief in himself and his ability to lead. Danza does not possess the most secure vocal instrument but instills an infectious sincerity into his renderings of the workers’ strike anthem, “Unfair,” and his political call to arms, “The Name’s LaGuardia.”

Danza’s take-charge LaGuardia is complemented perfectly by Amy Pietz and Jennifer Westfeldt as the two women in his life. Making her professional stage debut, Pietz (“Caroline in the City”) exudes a loving but feisty persona as LaGuardia’s long-suffering, ever-adoring secretary, Marie. Pietz also demonstrates a fluid, personality-rich vocal ability in two humor-filled odes to unrequited love, “Marie’s Law” and “The Very Next Man.” Westfeldt (“Two Guys and a Girl”) offers a striking portrayal as Thea, LaGuardia’s first wife. Wesfeldt’s Thea captures a perfect balance between deep respect and emotional ambivalence toward this man who does not take no for an answer. This mood is captured perfectly in her two ballads, ” ‘Til Tomorrow” and “When Did I Fall in Love?”

The production follows LaGuardia’s life from 1914 to 1934 when he finally defeats Tammany Hall’s cover boy, Mayor Jimmy Walker. The spirit of these colorful but roaringly corrupt years in New York’s history is captured exquisitely by Lenny Wolpe’s adept portrayal of political boss Ben Marino, ably assisted by a hilarious quartet of sleazy political cronies (Eddie Driscoll, Joshua Finkel, Daniel Guzman, George McDaniel). These backroom politicos provide the two musical highlights of the evening, “Politics and Poker” and the deliciously clever “Little Tin Box.”

More highlights are provided by the comical courtship of Suzanne Blakeslee’s working girl Dora and her dimwitted but opportunistic policeman beau, Floyd, played to the lowbrow hilt by Mike Hagerty. Blakeslee chews up a bit of scenery herself in her effusive admission that the oppressed is smitten with the oppressor (“I’m in Love With a Cop”). Brian Stepanek and Ron Orbach are quite believable as LaGuardia’s overworked but dedicated assistants, Neil and Morris, respectively.

Assisting the production greatly is Kay Cole’s minimalist but mood-enhancing choreography, highlighted by fellow “A Chorus Line” alumni Pamela Blair’s twinkling rendition of tap-laden, “Gentleman Jimmy.” Music director Peter Matz and his accomplished onstage mini-orchestra create seamless, period-evoking accompaniment to the whole proceedings.

Fiorello!

Freud Playhouse; 568 seats; $50 top

Production

Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert presents a musical play in two acts, music by Jerry Bock, book by George Abbott and Jerome Weidman, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, directed by Glenn Casale.

Creative

Musical direction, Peter Matz; choreography, Kay Cole; scenic design, Gary Wissman; costume design, David R. Zyla; lighting design, Tom Ruzika, Steven Young; sound design, Philip G. Allen. Conductor/keyboard, Matz; associate musical director/pianist, Gerald Sternback; producing artistic director, Marcia Seligson. Opened and reviewed Nov. 10, 1999; closes Nov. 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Fiorello LaGuardia - Tony Danza Marie - Amy Pietz Thea - Jennifer Westfeldt Ben - Lenny Wolpe Dora - Suzanne Blakeslee Floyd - Mike Hagerty Morris - Ron Orbach Neil - Brian Stepanek Mitzi - Pamela Blair
Ensemble: Eddie Driscoll, Joshua Finkel, Daniel Guzman, Julie Janney, Carol Kline, George McDaniel, Stefanie Morse, Diane Vincent.
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