"Fiorello!" falls short at BTG's Unicorn Theatre

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STOCKBRIDGE — Fiorello LaGuardia served three consecutive terms as mayor of New York City, from 1934 to 1945, running for, and winning, his first term as an improbable Democrat/Republican fusion candidate (can you imagine?).

Feisty, determined, idealistic, pugnacious, ready to go to the barricades in a singleminded battle against corruption and injustice, irrespective of political consequence, Fiorello (the little flower) left a potent legacy in New York politics.

"Fiorello!," the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical crafted by Jerome Wiedman and George Abbott (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) is a celebratory, if sketchy, look at the 10 years leading up to his successful 1933 mayoral campaign.

The show — which is being given an earnest, if also spotty and hard-working production at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre — touches all the bases in LaGuardia's career pre-mayoral career, beginning with his immigration law practice and continuing through his unexpected election to the House of Representatives, his equally unexpected enlistment in the Air Force in World War I, his battles not only with Tammany Hall but also the corrupt administration of Jimmy Walker, two marriages and his personal and professional rebound after the death of his first wife.

He's certainly a figure worthy of a musical and so are the times in which he lived, especially at a period in our social and political history when notions of cultural diversity and America as a melting pot are falling into disgrace, at least in some quarters. This musical, however, is insubstantial, sketchy, at best, as it moves in fits and starts. Weidman and Abbott's book is pedestrian, superficial and unexpectedly short on wit. Bock and Harnick's score, on the other hand, is tuneful, rich, smart, arguably among the best this duo — who also gave us "Fiddler on the Roof" and "She Loves me" — created.

Director Bob Moss has filled Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre stage — where the show is running through July 23 — and Carl Sprague's inventive, creative set with a youthful cast, led by Austin Lombardi in the title role.

Lombardi delivers a charmless portrayal that is characterized by awkward physical movements, especially in his use of his hands, and a rapid-fire speaking pattern that sounds, at times, as if he were channeling the late Robert Preston's con man, Prof. Harold Hill in "The Music Man." To his credit, Lombardi's singing voice is among the stronger in a cast whose youthful energies seem, oddly harnessed, for the most part.

Whatever charisma, charm and depth may be lacking in Lombardi's Fiorello is compensated for by Matt Mclean's Morris, a somewhat cynical loyal, resourceful aide to LaGuardia; Chelsea Groen, who is utterly beguiling as Dora, especially in her signature number, "I Love a Cop;" and, by no means least, Rebecca Brudner as Fiorello's first wife, Thea, an immigrant from Trieste who catches Fiorello's eye, heart and antipathy for social injustice as the leader of the strike of female employees at the Triangle Shirt Waist factory. Brudner makes the most, and then some, of the opportunities Weidman, Abbott, Bock and Harnick give her. She is especially moving in her big solo number, "When Did I Fall in Love?"

There also is some very nice work by Rylan Morsbach as Ben Marino, an influential party pol, and Dan Cassin as Dora's eventual husband, Floyd, who serves as a symbol of how easily the ingenuous can succumb to the corrupt without realizing what is happening.

In the thankless role of Marie, LaGuardia's second wife, Kate Barenboim settles for easy choices that make it difficult to understand what it is LaGuardia sees in her, beyond her value to him as a steadily loyal, efficient, trusted executive secretary. Barenboim's singing voice, alas, is among the less appealing in this cast.

Moss' staging is efficient; Michael Callahan's choreography is at its wittiest in "Politics and Poker" and "Little Tin Box" and its most graceful and engaging in Dora's "I Love a Cop." That dance sequence is among those rare moments in the Unicorn that rise above the material and suggest the musical "Fiorello!" might have been in both its writing and performance.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Fiorello!" Book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Bob Moss; choreographer, Michael Callahan; music director, Evan Zavada

With: Austin Lombardi, Rebecca Brudner, Katie Birenboim, Matt McLean, Rylan Morsbach, Michael Brahce, Dan cassin, Chelsea Groen, Julius Reese, Michael Sullivan

Designers: Carl Sprague, scenic; David Murin, costume; Matthew F. Adelson, lighting; Brendan F. Doyle, sound

Who: Berkshire Theatre Group

Where: Unicorn Theatre, 6 East St., Stockbridge

When: Through July 23. Evenings — Monday through Thursday at 7; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday at 2

Running time: 2 hours 26 minutes (including one intermission)

Tickets: $60

How: (413) 997-4444; berkshiretheatregroup.org; at box offices — Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield; Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 E. Main St., Stockbridge


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