More than half a century before “Hamilton,” another patriotic musical telling the life story of an American political figure and iconic New Yorker won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
“Fiorello!,” which premiered the same season as “Gypsy” and “The Sound of Music,” depicts Fiorello H. La Guardia in the early 20th century before he become mayor of New York City, including his reformist crusade against the corruption of Tammany Hall and his work as a congressman, public interest lawyer and fighter pilot in World War I.
It is a timely work not just because of “Hamilton” and the looming presidential election, but for its themes of inequity in society, partisan politics, campaigning as an outsider and appealing to immigrant voters. In a memorable song-and-dance number, La Guardia alternates the same energetic stump speech in English, Italian and Yiddish.
Despite having an absolutely superlative score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “She Loves Me”), “Fiorello!” is rarely performed, which could be the result of its book (which is well-crafted but bulky and sprawling by today’s standards). It has yet to receive a Broadway revival.
A scaled-down staging of the musical with a very young cast, which was produced over the summer by the Berkshire Theatre Group in Massachusetts, has transferred to the East 13th Street Theater (home of Classic Stage Company) in the East Village for a short run.
The orchestra has been reduced to two pianos and violin, and the set consists of little more than free-standing cutouts of iconic city buildings, creating a stylish minimalism.
The photogenic actors look as if they just graduated from college. And while Austin Scott Lombardi shows considerable pep and drive in the title role, he hardly resembles “The Little Flower” physically.
Under the direction of Bob Moss (the founder of Playwrights Horizons), the production is full of tender emotion, dramatically effective and highly enjoyable. Thanks to judicious editing and a seamless flow, the running time has been cut to a manageable length.