‘Fiorello’ revives the fight against Tammany Hall at Berkshire Treatre Group

What a man, what a job — all these people who look to us for justice — all these newcomers to the city, learning a new language and a new system. All these women arrested illegally when they strike for a living wage.

We’re in a Greenwich Village law office in 1915. Three people are waiting for the boss. Neil is a young idealist. Morris is wryly compassionate and resigned to unstable late hours away from his wife. And Marie, who has worked here since she was 17, has a shrewd eye on the backstage workings of the political system.

And the boss? The small dark man in a dark felt hat, the fast-moving, fast-talking local boy who has already served as a representative in Trieste, learned Yiddish in Israel, picked up Croatian along the way and served as a translator on Ellis Island?

The boss is a champion of FDR, the New Deal, blue-collar workers, immigrants, people who need a voice. He is Italian, half-Jewish — and Republican. He will become a long-shot Congressman and a three-term mayor of New York City, and he will break Tammany Hall, the political group that has rigged city politics for a century.

Fiorello LaGuardia has his own legend, and he has his own musical. This summer’s revival of “Fiorello!”, one of a rare few performances since it opened on Broadway in 1959, runs at Berkshire Theatre Group through July 23 and will move Off-Broadway in the fall, at The East 13th Street Theater from Sept. 2 to Oct. 6.

People know the music, said artistic director Kate Maguire, especially political parodies like “Little Tin Box,” putting officials on trial for corruption, which can feel satisfying today. The songs are often comic and rousing and light.

But behind them the play runs deep. Now that I’ve seen it, and I have the background for the music, I know why it won a Pulitzer in 1960. It moves across 15 years, two elections, World War I, major events in people’s lives and a fundamental shift in American politics.

Fiorello was an outlier in 1916, but Republican then meant something substantially different from what it means today. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, as Katie Birenboim, who plays Marie, reminded me in an interview earlier this summer.

In the early 1900s, Republicans were still the Union party. Democrats were the Andrew Jackson Southerners. In September 1881, when James Garfield left the White House on his way to a Williams College ceremony and got shot by a psychopathic gunman, Republicans were leading the movement to give black men the vote and enforcing Civil Service reforms.

In New York, the Democrats were Tammany Hall. They were the political machine Aaron Burr had built up 100 years before to oppose Alexander Hamilton. By 1910 they supported some groups in exchange for votes, owned elections, funded public works and led to corruption scandals.

And Fiorello’s struggle against them took years. The play crosses time and space with  costume designs that moved beautifully from an Italian neighborhood in campaign season to the Jewish East Side with one movement of a scarf, and they anchored us in time, from the pre-war years to Prohibition to the Depression.

But in a story that broad, the people hold the plot and pacing together. And they did.

As Fiorello, Pittsfield-born actor Austin Lombardi is everywhere, debating in Yiddish, running between rallies, lambasting his crew and standing up for them. Fiorello is forceful, demanding, alight and furious with an energy that makes things happen and an integrity that can make or break him.

Marie stands up to him with growing confidence, and Matt McLean as Morris gives lines that could have sounded cynical a rueful depth and warmth and makes his longtime friendship with Marie solid enough to weather fear and failure.

Neil comes in deftly with a mellow tenor and Ben in a strong bass as the Republican political boss and the one man willing to call Fiorello out. And subtle moments build around Ben and his crew, as when he comes to watch his right-hand man board a transport ship in khaki and a tin helmet, on his way to the trenches.

Fiorello leaves on the same ship, saying goodbye to Rebecca Brudner as Thea on the dock. She is his ally and a natural leader, the model who took charge in the clothing workers’ strike. She has come to the U.S. from Trieste and speaks with a fluent Italian accent — a forceful woman who campaigns, strategizes in Washington and stands at her own table singing There he goes, Sir Galahad with a self-aware tenderness, a surprise at how much she cares, that hits below the ribs. Especially when we know what’s coming.

Balancing her lightly, Chelsea Groen as Dora can turn an Adelaide-like comic character into a tough, bright woman and make even the zany-doll lyrics of I Love a Cop real and painfully contemporary. She is torn between this new infatuation and her feelings about his job, and her old friends — what will the factory girls think? How can she care this much about a man who tried to arrest them illegally? And then she hits a line like Once you take away his club and pistol, Floyd won’t hurt a fly.

And we wince wince hard.

Floyd, the cop, is in a tough place. The NYPD saw a lot of patronage from the Tammany crowd, so he is the one man on stage who can benefit from Fiorello’s opposition. In an interview last month, director Bob Moss described Floyd as a catspaw, and the decision to play Floyd often as a slapstick galoot may reflect that interpretation. But Dan Cassin as Floyd came through for me most powerfully when he had a chance to show power and dimension, the heat between him and Dora and the difficulty of working in a profession where being “disloyal” can get him fired.

His tone as he hassles strikers can hit a harmonic in today’s headlines, among many others. Looking toward November, this show can feel eerily present.

In the second act, Fiorello is standing alone on the darkened stage, facing loss. And he looks around him at the city streets — at the people he has worked for all these years, who have just backed a man so obviously corrupt that he will soon be run out of office.

He is telling them, in anger and sadness, you are better than this.

He is telling us.


Photo at the top: Katie Birenboim as Marie and Matt McLean as Morris appear as Fiorello’s colleagues. Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware, courtesy of Berkshire Theatre Group

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