‘Fiorello!’ Charms at ‘Encores’; Spooky ‘Vandal’: Review
Five feet tall and jowlier than Winston Churchill, Fiorello LaGuardia ruled New York City from 1934 to 1945.
He broke the Tammany Hall political machine. When a strike interrupted newspaper delivery, the populist mayor took to the airwaves, reading the day’s comic strips over the radio.
But when we first meet him in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s 1959 Pulitzer-winning charmer “Fiorello!” the Little Flower is small beer: a workaholic lawyer and friend to the disenfranchised scrabbling to make a name for himself.
He falls for curvy Thea, a ladies-garments model who -- as played by the enchanting Kate Baldwin in this opening presentation of City Center’s “Encores!” season -- towers over him.
She doesn’t immediately fall back. After 10 years of marriage, though, she wonders, in the show’s tenderest ballad, “When Did I Fall in Love?”
As Bock and Harnick would write five years later in “Fiddler on the Roof,” when love does finally happen, “it’s nice to know.”
“Fiorello!” affectionately mixes hagiography and agitprop. The best-known song, “Little Tin Box,” is a jaunty paean to political patronage. The show doesn’t so much end as stop dead in its tracks just as LaGuardia wins both the mayoralty and the girl (a second one, in fact, after Thea’s death).
“Fiorello!” launched the cherishable “Encores!” series 20 years ago. The reprise, directed by Gary Griffin, is cheerful, if somewhat zingless.
Danny Rutigliano is pugnacious in the title role but lacks charisma. As his adoring Girl Friday, Erin Dilly carries the torch a bit too weightily.
But Jenn Gambatese is charming as Dora, the perky seamstress who falls for a cop. And as LaGuardia’s political rabbi Ben Marino, the fine Shuler Hensley gave off sparks otherwise absent, his graveled voice sounding even more Tom Waits-like than usual as he led “Tin Box.”
In a cameo as a chantoosie sashaying her way through an ode to Walker, Emily Skinner provided another highlight.
The shrill amplification of Rob Berman’s superb orchestra eventually settled down, but why the electronics at all? The players are on stage, after all.
Through Feb. 3 at City Center, 131 W. 55th St. Information: +1-212-581-1212; http://www.nycitycenter.org. Rating: ***
“The Vandal,” at the Flea in Tribeca, features three extraordinary actors in a new play by Hamish Linklater, better known as an actor and for good reason.
Deirdre O’Connell is sitting at a bus stop minding her own business when a young man in a hoodie begins chatting her up. He hopes to convince her to buy him a six-pack of Bud at a nearby liquor store.
O’Connell and Noah Robbins, as the talkative conversant, play off one another wonderfully -- she the standoffish cynic, he the relentless puppy.
This acutely expressive actress plays equally well off the suspicious liquor-store owner played by Zach Grenier (the wickedly entertaining divorce lawyer David Lee from CBS’s “The Good Wife”). Especially when he encounters her, somewhat looped, in the local cemetery.
A ghost story with several unexpected twists, “The Vandal” struggles to explore the narratives we construct to cope with loss. I admire the Flea and sympathetic director Jim Simpson for giving Linklater such a first-rate showcase for what is, at this point, something of a muddle.
Through Feb. 17 at The Flea, 41 White St., Tribeca. Information: +1-212-226-2407; http://www.theflea.org. Rating: **1/2
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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