I caught the Saturday matinee performance of the 1959 Pulitzer-Prize-winning musical “Fiorello!” presented by the New York City Center Encores! series on February 2. I was familiar with some of the music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick from the original Broadway cast recording, but this was the first time I’ve been at a live performance, having not been present twenty years ago when this Encores series began with a performance of this very show.
The book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, tweaked slightly for this revival by Weidman’s son John, presents scenes from the early adulthood of Fiorello LaGuardia, leading up to his election as Mayor of New York City. LaGuardia was a “peoples’ lawyer” who made it to Congress by offering himself as a candidate to the Republican party in a district that they didn’t expect to win. His outspoken, impolitic ways guaranteed him attention as a “colorful” character. The lyricist Sheldon Harnick was present for the “speak-back” after the matinee performance, and he recalled that Abbott wasn’t interested in doing a show about LaGuardia until he was informed that the man had two major romances in his life, providing fodder for a show that would not be purely political (although surely it was the political angle that helped it to win an unusual drama Pulitzer for a musical).
The current revival did a good job of suggesting a staged production through costumes and minimal props, with energetic choreography capitalizing on the period dance numbers from the period of the 1910s and 1920s. Director Gary Griffin got a terrific performance out of the young, talented cast. Danny Rutigliano was duly pugnacious as the “Little Flower,” so-called not just because this was the translation of his Italian first name. At the same time, the book of this show does not make LaGuardia out to be a particularly agreeable individual, making it somewhat difficult to understand why two such beautiful and talented women would fall for him (simultaneously).
I thought it was a terrific presentation, up to Encores!’s usual high standards, but I had some difficulty enjoying it due to the excessive amplification of the orchestra and singers. Audience members sitting around me didn’t seem to be bothered, although my regular concert-going companion agreed that the sound was much too loud. From where we were sitting, second row in the dress circle towards the right facing the stage, the loudspeakers seemed to be blasting so much that the high strings took on an unpleasant metallic edge, and the brass and percussion were frequently so unbearable that I had my fingers in my ears. Voices also distorted from the amplification, especially in loud choral sections. A request to the house manager at intermission to turn it down a bit didn’t help much, from my perspective. (Perhaps it was “yeah, yeah” but no change….) A Facebook friend who was sitting in the mezzanine said she didn’t have any problem with the sound. Perhaps the amplification was set to get adequate “presence” up to the mezzanine, but I found it almost painful to listen at times in the dress circle. I’ve been attending these productions for several years, and have never previously had this problem. I’m hoping it won’t be a problem again the next time I go, on March 23, for “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman.” We had moved our subcription downstairs from the mezzanine to the dress circle to get a better view. Maybe for next year we’ll have to move back upstairs to cheaper seats in order to get more bearable sound.