‘Fiorello!’ Worthy of Hizzoner

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Pop quiz: What musical tied “The Sound of Music” for the 1959 best musical Tony Award, while also winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama the following year?

Answer: “Fiorello!,” which happens to be a better musical than “The Sound of Music” but one that you may never have heard of.

In further proof--as if we needed any--that the county’s colleges provide most of the area’s interesting work, Irvine Valley College has not only unearthed this wonderful blend of song and politics, but director Ronald Ellison has also fashioned a hitch-free production, accented by Suzie K. DuVal’s evocative Manhattan skyline set on the broad but narrow Forum Theatre stage.


First, some background. Inspired by the colorful career of dynamic, populist New York Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, book writers Jerome Weidman and George Abbott took a larger-than-life character suited to the stage and placed him at the middle of swirling events before and after World War I, leading up to LaGuardia’s first mayoral term in 1934.

“Fiorello!”--even more skilled and amusing than another American history show, “1776”--celebrates American urban politics from the drawing room to the poker room. It’s one of the finest, cleverest products of talented composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, the song team who also did “Fiddler on the Roof.”

And, since this is a Broadway musical, there must be a love interest--two, in this case. As Fiorello (Terry Christopher) rises to political prominence by coming to the aid of striking women’s garment workers, he ignores Marie (likable Laura Cadieu), who quietly adores him, for pretty strike leader Thea (fine soprano Melinda Cowan).

The book’s balance of the personal and the political--except for a few over-plotted moments in Act 2--is one of this musical’s great strengths.

The cast has thrown itself into this project with obvious joy, evident from Christopher’s first charismatic moments onstage as “Hizzoner” and followed by the underused Kevin Odekirk leading the LaGuardia law office in “On the Side of the Angels.” A rollicking version of “Politics and Poker” is steered effectively by Donald Formaneck as Ben, the Republican Party boss who gets Fiorello’s congressional career on track.


This production’s consistent energy is sparked, no doubt, by Bock’s and Harnick’s varied, rhyme-rich tunes--from the poker guys’ fun “The Bum Won” and “Little Tin Box” to Thea’s gentle solo, “When Did I Fall in Love,” to Marie’s declarative, dramatic “The Very Next Man.”


Extra juice comes from DuVal’s functional set and arranger Randy Woltz’s brisk live band, perched above the action. The show closes soon, but this “Fiorello!” cries out for a transfer from tiny Irvine Valley College to . . . any takers?


* “Fiorello!,” Forum Theatre, Irvine Valley College, 5500 Irvine Center Drive. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $10-$13. Dark tonight. Ends Dec. 6. (949) 451-5333. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Terry Christopher: Fiorello

Melinda Cowan: Thea

Donald Formaneck: Ben

Laura Cadieu: Marie

Valerie Casey: Dora

Paul Burt: Floyd

Kevin Odekirk: Neil

Stan Morrow: Morris

Masaya : Mitzi

An Irvine Valley College Department of Theatre production. Book: Jerome Weidman and George Abbott. Music: Jerry Bock. Lyrics: Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Ronald Ellison. Arranger: Randy Woltz. Set: Suzie K. DuVal. Lights: Gary Christensen. Costumes: Kathleen Ziegler. Choreography: Linda Morata-Proske.