ONSTAGE For those unfamiliar with Fiorello LaGuardia, the friend-of-the-working class Republican who fought Tammany Hall to become the 99th Mayor of New York City, the revival of the musical Fiorello! will be a revelation. (The 42nd Street Moon production plays at the Gateway Theatre through March 17.)
Who knew that a Republican would make his political chops supporting striking women sweatshop workers, representing the poor pro bono and fighting for immigrants?
Who can imagine a politician refusing to be corrupted in the one of the most corrupt political eras, campaigning in Italian, Yiddish and Croatian?
And for those who do know of LaGuardia, it is a delight to see the ardent social reformer, populist member of Congress, and WWI flying ace celebrated in this clever, rough-and-tumble musical now in production by 42 Street Moon at the Gateway Theater.
We are introduced to the paradox of Fiorello by his beleaguered legal assistants, Morris Cohen (Matt Hammons) and Neil (Sean Fenton), who open the show with a revealing duet, “On the Side of the Angels.” Neil belts out a joyful paean about how wonderful it is to work for this boss. “What a man, what a job! All these people who look to us for justice, trust us! My life will be selfless and pure—like Upton Sinclair!”
Morris on the other hand, laments how hard it is to work for the crusading attorney for long hours and low pay. “The line of poor and friendless – endless! The bench stays crowded, it’s a regular Wailing Wall. Penniless and helpless, he collects them all.”
Still another dimension to Fiorello is provided by a third co-worker, Marie (Katrina Lauren McGraw), the snappy, efficient legal secretary who is secretly in love with her squat, tough-talking and volatile boss.
Like many of 42ndStreet Moon’s productions, Fiorello! is a revival of a Tony and Pulitzer Award-winning show that ran for two years on Broadway. The book is by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott; the music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (the duo who went on to compose Fiddler on the Roof.) This production is directed by Karen Altree Piemme with musical direction by Daniel Thomas.
The legendary Fiorello (Colin Thomson) shows up to support the Waistmakers Union when one of the union leaders, Thea (Amanda Johnson) is arrested. The strikers are harassed by union thugs, told to “move along” by a Tammany-paid cop, and even jailed—but still they persist. They sing on the picket line: “Must we sew and sew simply to survive—So some low so-and-so can thrive?”
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, party boss Ben Marino (Chris Vettel) and his henchman are in a smoke-filled backroom playing cards and deciding who will be the next Republican candidate on the ballot “who’s willing to lose” against the Tammany machine. “Politics and poker, shuffle up the cards and find the joker!”
Some of the best scenes are of Fiorello campaigning throughout his precinct with his theme song, “The Name’s LaGuardia,” appealing to garment workers, then to Italian immigrants (Amici!) vowing to end the Austrian occupation of Trieste (who knew that would be a vital campaign platform in New York in 1915) and in Yiddish on Delancey Street, (Tammany es nicht kosher!) where he is cheered on with a joyful freylach. Here the choreography by Jayne Zaban really shines.
“A Little Tin Box” depicts the depths of corruption from Tammany Hall, from the judges and the garbage company to the police officer on the beat. Under questioning from the district attorney, the Tammany politicians claim they could afford their Rolls Royce and yachts by giving up smoking, forgoing lunch and putting the pennies in “A little tin box, that a little tin key unlocks. There is nothing unorthodox, about a little tin box!”
As you can probably tell, the best thing about this show is Sheldon Harnick’s brilliant lyrics, especially when sung by McGraw, Johnson, Hammons, and other strong voices in the company. They capture the era better than the projections of newspaper headlines on the back wall of the stage, some of which seem completely irrelevant to the political issues at hand.
And though the action is lively and the energy high, the pacing of the show is cumbersome and slowed down by the constant change of scenery (and some costumes). The stage at Gateway Theater is not large, but there are ways—and 42ndStreet Moon has accomplished this well in other productions—of moving quickly through many scenes without rearranging the furniture every time. Sometimes even the actors seemed impatient with the scene and costume changes.
Fiorello! is a show worth reviving. When a new crop of Congresswomen and men follow in his footsteps and proudly reflect both America’s diverse communities and a commitment to social justice, the pioneering Fiorello definitely deserves a place in the spotlight.
Through March 17
Golden Gate Theatre, SF.
More info here.