How lucky we are to have City Center’s Encores! series, which is now celebrating its 20th anniversary of presenting semi-staged, starry-cast, full-orchestra productions of rarely seen musicals, several of which have transferred to Broadway for extended runs (most notably Chicago) or at least been preserved on disc.
To mark the occasion, they presented a new production of the 1959 Pulitzer-winning musical Fiorello!, the first show that was presented under the Encores! banner. This was actually the first time that Encores!, which typically presents only three titles a year, returned to a show it had already produced. (I wouldn’t mind new productions of Babes in Arms, Lady in the Dark and No Strings,too.)
Fiorello!, which explores the rise of legendary New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the early 20th century and his crusade on behalf of the poor and against the corruption of Tammany Hall, is perhaps the quintessential Encores! show. And I’m not just referring to how Encores! and Fiorello! both have exclamation points. In spite of having a superlative score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock and a well-crafted book by Jerome Weidman, it has never been revived on Broadway. Compare that with Gypsy, which opened the same year as Fiorello! and has since received four Broadway revivals.
Warren Carlyle’s very satisfying production, which featured little staging or scenery even by Encores! standards, was marked by its emphasis on the story, which is old-fashioned in structure but still very moving, as well as a cavalcade of strong performances by musical theater pros. In an appropriate touch, Weidman (Assassins, Pacific Overtures) adapted his father’s original book, which helped to cut more than a half hour from the running time while preserving the narrative flow.
Rather than cast a celeb, the title role (originally played by Tom Bosley) went to Danny Rutigliano, who dynamically captured LaGuardia’s fiery spirit and brought an emotional edge to the ambitious, frequently frustrated character. The excellent cast also included a scratchy-voiced Shuler Hensley as a political junkie, a sincere Erin Dilly as LaGuardia’s long-suffering secretary and a characteristically daffy Jenn Gambatese as a low-paid factory worker who becomes romantically linked to a fast-rising bureaucrat.
So allow me to raise a toast to Encores!, which has not only presented dozens of great musicals but changed the standards under which they are revived to emphasize score over spectacle. Cheers and here’s to 20 more years!