Here’s a trivia question for you: What do these eight Broadway musicals of the 1950s have in common?

Plain And Fancy, Pipe Dream, New Girl In Town, Oh, Captain!, Jamaica, La Plume De Ma Tante, Take Me Along, Redhead, and Fiorello!

Answer: All received Tony nominations as Best Musical before going on to virtual obscurity, and in the case of the last two, actually won the coveted award.

It’s precisely for musicals like these that the theatrical genre “Concert Staged Reading” was created, the better to allow musical theater aficionados a possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to find out what all the fuss was about way back when, and in particular, to hear songs by the likes of Harold Rome, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Merrill, Harold Arlen, and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick performed live onstage.

Long Beach’s premier Civic Light Opera, Musical Theatre West, has been offering Broadway buffs just this opportunity in their Reiner Reading Series. Following star-studded concert staged readings of such obscure or semi-obscure gems and/or chestnuts as Anyone Can Whistle, The Most Happy Fella, Ben Franklin in Paris, and Sugar, MTW recently presented for one performance only the musical which tied The Sound Of Music for Best Musical of 1959-60 and actually beat out Gypsy for that honor. That show is Fiorello!, with music by Fiddler On The Roof’s Bock and Harnick and book by Jerome Weidman and the legendary George Abbott.

Just why Fiorello! hasn’t endured is up for debate. On the plus side, it has a bright and bubbly 1950s score, a New York setting, and a colorful lead character if there ever was one—Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945 and the man whose name lives on at LaGuardia Airport.

Still, when compared to the most revived Tony-winning Best Musicals of the 1950s (South Pacific, Guys And Dolls, The King And I, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and the very ’50s-centric The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees), Fiorello! comes across more quaint than compelling, making it ideal for a single-performance concert staged reading, which can (and in fact must) get rehearsed in a mere twenty-five hours, and needs only to fill a theater once.

Fiorello! follows the life of La Guardia (John Massey) from his early days as a 1910s crusading lawyer (“On The Side Of The Angels”) to his run for Congress (“The Name’s La Guardia”) to his WWI service (“Till Tomorrow” and “Home Again”) to his successful campaign to wrest the mayorship from the charismatic but corrupt James J. Walker (“Gentleman Jimmy”). Along the way we meet the two main women in Fiorello’s life, first wife Thea (Shannon Warne) and second wife Marie (Julie Dixon Jackson). Other characters include friends and colleagues Neil (Jason W. Webb), Morris (Jeffrey Landman), Dora (Jennifer Strattan), Ben (James W. Gruessing, Jr.), Mitzi (Shanon Mills Habelow), and Floyd (David Coolidge), along with a trio of first generation Americans seeking Fiorello’s pro bono aid during his law-practicing years: Mrs. Pomerantz (Jessica Wilson), Mr. Lopez (Christopher Van Etten), and Mr. Zapatella (Louis Pardo).

Among Fiorello!’s most memorable song sequences are “Politics And Poker” (a salute to those smoke-filled rooms where political deals get made), “The Bum Won” (which has those deal-makers pretty darned disgruntled when Fiorello wins the mayorship, and “Little Tin Box” (in which those same cronies try to explain away their fortunes by claiming that all those bucks are the result of giving up smoking for a month or two, or taking empty bottles to the grocer, or going one full week without lunch). Needless to say, these are some of Harnick’s cleverest lyrics.

Under the accomplished direction of Patrick Pearson and accompanied by a terrific onstage orchestra conducted by musical director Julie Lamoureux on piano, the entire cast sparkled, whether engaging in dialog (scarcely needing to look at their book-in-hand scripts), vocalizing, or doing some skilled footwork (musical staging and choreography by Daniel Smith).

Big, bold, and brassy, but with a heart of gold, Massey proved a perfect fit for the role originated on Broadway by a Tony-winning Tom Bosley. Warne and Jackson couldn’t have been better as Fiorello’s two adoring (but not concurrent) wives, their sopranos soaring in melodic ballads like “Till Tomorrow” and “When Did I Fall In Love?,” the latter a showcase for the divine Warne.  Jackson’s “Marie’s Law” may seem quaint if not positively primordial to 21st Century ears (“Every girl shall have a honeymoon which shall last at least a year.”) but a fabulous Jackson sure did sell the ditty, just as she did “The Very Next Man.” Strattan and Coolidge made for delightful romantic second bananas, the former’s “I Love A Cop” a particular treat. Not surprisingly, MTW vets Gruessing, Landman, and Webb did their usual topnotch work, matched by Sam Cavenaugh, Pardo, Jordan Sidfield, Van Etten, Daniel Wargo, and Wilson in smaller roles. A delightful Elena Scarlett Murray had a clever running bit as a telephone receiver (a tip of the hat to Pearson for that recurring bit of business). Habelow’s showstopping “Gentleman Jimmy” proved a reminder of just what a stellar triple-threat the former Shanon Mari Mills is.

Fiorello! was performed minus costume or lighting design, not necessarily par for the course for a concert staged reading, but not all that missed given the caliber of talent onstage.

The Reiner Reading Series is underwritten by Ken & Dottie Reiner. Michael Betts and David Lamoureux are Reiner Reading Series producers. David Nestor was stage manager and Gigi Fusco Meese assistant stage manager. MTW’s Executive Director/Producer is Paul Garman. Steven Glaudini is Artistic Director.

Would I want to see a fully-staged revival of Fiorello!? More to the point, would a Fiorello! revival sell out a theater performance after performance? To both questions the answer is at the very least a qualified “No.” Still, I’m glad I got the chance to see Fiorello! at least this once, and so I would expect were the majority of Sunday’s nearly sold-out house. Next up is 1956’s Bells Are Ringing, and that is one I can’t wait to see, if only to hear Susanswerphone’s ever-helpful Ella Peterson and inveterate playboy Jeff Moss sing “Long Before I Knew You,” “Just In Time,” and “The Party’s Over.”

And that, my friends, is why concert staged readings were  born.

University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
March 11, 2012

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