It may not equal "What happened to the lost city of Atlantis?" as one of the world's great mysteries, but many a musical theater geek has spent part of a sleepless night wondering how Fiorello! beat Gypsy and tied The Sound of the Music for the Tony Award as Best Musical for 1960. And Gary Griffin's pleasant City Center Encores! production of the classic tuner about former New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia hardly provides a persuasive answer.
Indeed, I can see little debate about the merits of Jerome Weidman and George Abbott's book. It's a rather oddly structured affair that tells us precious little about the so-called Little Flower (played here with suitable gusto by the pint-sized Danny Rutigliano). Even as it spans 20 years from his first congressional campaign until his decision to run for a second time as mayor of New York, we don't learn much about LaGuardia other than his essential decency, brash attitude, and willingness to take on Tammany Hall.
Instead, the book constantly diverts us from its protagonist, choosing to switch focus on a dime to everything from the unrequited longing for LaGuardia by his long-suffering secretary Marie (an excellent, all-too-sympathetic Erin Dilly) or the vaguely comic marital woes of LaGuardia aide Morris (a delicious Adam Heller) to the inconsequential romance of Marie's ditzy friend Dora (the wonderfully comic Jenn Gambatese) and ambitious if none-too-bright cop, Floyd (a believable Jeremy Bobb).
The show's score, the first major success by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, is admittedly a somewhat stronger asset, although it takes until the end of the first act, when the company sings the lilting "Till Tomorrow" to make much of an impression. Things finally pick up musically in the second act when the always-glorious Kate Baldwin, as LaGuardia's wife Thea, almost literally brings the house down with her creamy, soaring rendition of "When Did I Fall in Love?" The big-voiced Emily Skinner, as nightclub entertainer Mitzi Travers, shakes and shimmies her way through the catchy "Gentleman Jimmy." And the great Shuler Hensley, in the production's standout performance as political bigwig Ben Marino, practically devours the show's best-known tune, the clever "Little Tin Box," aided by a first-rate chorus of gentlemen. Even our leading players finally get a chance to show off a bit more of their chops late in the evening, as Rutigliano invests a recently-written reprise of "The Name's LaGuardia" with suitable pathos and Dilly brings a welcome touch of sass to her declaration of codependence in "The Very Next Man."
Given the show's subject matter – with its attack on business-as-usual politics -- it's perhaps not completely unsurprising that Fiorello! took home the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And as New York gears up for another mayoral election, the show does feel somewhat timely in its exploration of what it takes to get to City Hall. But how Fiorello! made it to the top of Tony ticket instead of being an also-ran is beyond my powers of explanation. Is it too late for a recount?