AISLE SAY Berkshires

FIORELLO!

Book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Bob Moss

Berkshire Theatre Group/Unicorn Stage until July 23
413-997-4444/Berkshire TheatreGroup.org

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

 

Fiorello! won major awards following its premiere in 1959, but since then it has never received a major revival and, sadly, has had few productions altogether. The score, by Bock and Harnick, overwhelms the libretto with its observations and smart blend of satire and humanity. The score is also a treasure of melodies and rhythms that never fail to surprise. The production at the Unicorn Theatre (the smaller venue at the Stockbridge campus of Berkshire Theatre Group, boasts a large cast with the musical muscle to more than justify the score.
 
The story of Fiorello LaGuardia is told chronologically and, by the second act, reveals the challenge of including pertinent historical and personal events in a theatrical setting that also must lead to musical high points. The first act, up to its final scenes, wherein Fiorello votes to draft men into the First World War, enlisting himself as proof that he believes in the principles he has fought for, is masterfully structured. Dialogue leads to song and moments that erupt into dance are seamless Ė the ideal of musical theatre is achieved. But then the research intrudes to scatter the focus of the writing and to accelerate events so that what began as strong narrative deteriorates into bullet-point statements.
 
The cast of the BTG production is enthusiastic and musically adept. They are a young company and many are cast to play roles for which they are clearly too young and for which they havenít the necessary weight of years or experience. And perhaps this is where the weaknesses in the script are more evident than they might be with age-appropriate character actors. Finally, the whole is much like an excellent college production, though the leading players are certainly ready for prime(r) time.
 
In the style of the late 1950ís Broadway musical, Fiorello! is written in twenty scenes. The era of hi-tech was decades away, but the pattern was entrenched in a kaleidoscopic vision of the world as it could be presented on a stage. At the Unicorn, the design, by Carl Sprague, manages to define offices, street scenes and more with economy and imagination Ė the changes, though not swift or slick, contribute to the ensemble nature of the evening and to the credibility of the work produced by BTG.
 
The onstage company is large and probably too large for the intimate space. Kate Birenboim, Rebecca Brudner and Matt McLean are especially strong. Austin Lombardi, in the title role, is saddled with having to portray a character well beyond his years. He trades high energy for the skill of an instinctive politicianís shrewd mind. He moves about the stage with force and unstoppable drive that animates his passion but blunts the arguments he fights to win.
 
The direction, by Bob Moss, helps to sustain the continuity of the story, but Michael Callahanís choreography tends to the hum-drum and literal. The great strength of the piece is that it is a musical play with characters that need to breathe and to speak their thoughts without being coy. In a number like Politics and Poker, there is no need for the men to prance around the stage with every chorus of the song. In fact, itís the lack of such staging that sets Fiorello! apart from so many other run-of-the-mill musicals of its time. We would benefit from hearing the cynicism of duplicitous politicians rather than watching them do a circle dance. And given todayís reality in the political arena, the play has enormous resonance in those scenes to let the language disturb as at the same time that we hear ourselves laughing.

 

 

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