On the evening of March 3, San Francisco’s 42nd Street Moon put on a spectacular performance of “Fiorello!” a musical centered around the life and career of Italian American politician Fiorello H. La Guardia. The musical highlights both La Guardia’s involvement in politics (in addition to sitting on the U.S. House of Representatives multiple times, he served as the mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945), as well as more intimate, often humorous, events in his personal life.
Jerome Weidman and George Abbott wrote the book for the musical. The plot follows the life of La Guardia (Colin Thomson) life during World War I and ten years later. Throughout his prolific career, he battled the Tammany Hall political machine, became a congressman and best of all, fell in love.
The musical’s jazzy soundtrack (composed by Jerry Bock) helps to saturate the production with the early 1900s atmosphere of New York City. Paired with often comical lyrics (Sheldon Harnick) and effortless rhyme, the tracks advance the plot. For instance, in “I Love A Cop,” Dora (Marisa Cozart), a worker La Guardia helps during a labor strike, confides in her close friend Marie (Katrina McGraw) that she is worried about what her friends would think about her lover Floyd (Christopher M. Nelson), a cop who put one of her friends in jail. She sings about the potential awkward introduction, “You remember her — she detested you; you remember him — he arrested you.” This funny lyric accurately expresses the irony of the situation and Dora’s dilemma.
The synchronization of the actor ensemble during the majority of the songs is finely tuned. On occasions in which more than one actor is singing, the songs cleverly place characters of contrasting personalities subsequent to each other. In “On the Side of the Angels,” Neil (Sean Fenton) starts off by displaying a positive and almost idealistic attitude about his privilege in working with La Guardia. Immediately following his hopeful sentiments, Morris (Matt Hammons) joins with a less enthusiastic rendition. Although he is loyal to his job and admires La Guardia, he seems a bit jaded due to the workload and long hours.
“Fiorello!” includes plenty of small details that reveal characterizations beyond the surface. With a simple juxtaposition, the song reveals further information about the characters; Morris has clearly been in the office longer than Neil who is most likely new and still a bit wet behind the ears. Morris’s repeated arguments with his wife over the phone also reveal that his work negatively affects the time he can spend with family. The audience’s awareness of Morris’s struggles in both the workplace and a domestic setting makes his relationship with Marie all the more adorable. He sticks with Marie during her unrequited crush on La Guardia; the two seem to be each other’s trustworthy confidant.
The second act of “Fiorello!” could have been stronger if there was more variation of atmosphere. One aspect of the musical that could be elaborated on is the death of La Guardia’s first wife Thea (Amanda Johnson). The latter half could have been less static compared to the first if her significance was more emphasized. In the second act, Thea delivers a solo performance about her love for La Guardia. The emotional weight of the song “When Did I Fall in Love” is amplified by its opera-like nature, which emphasizes Thea’s Italian roots. This piece seems like it was supposed to prepare the audience for Thea’s sudden death. The aftermath, however, is glossed over too quickly for this song to remain memorable. After La Guardia hears the news, he seems to recover without much grief, which is puzzling considering their happy and loving relationship. The following song he performs, “The Name’s La Guardia” (Reprise) seems to be out of place in regards to mood.
If the questionable consistency in the second act is overlooked, “Fiorello!” as a whole delivers a witty educational comedy about a significant political figure and New York culture after World War I. This musical succeeds in honoring La Guardia’s legacy — in all its grandeur both public and private.
“Fiorello!” will be showing at the Gateway Theatre in San Francisco through March 17.