‘Fiorello!’ a singing New York history lesson

The 1959 musical “Fiorello!” is by no means a knockout. But 42nd Street Moon’s production of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning show onstage at the Gateway Theatre offers a thoroughly engaging, and even educational, look at the life and rising career of groundbreaking New York politician Fiorello LaGuardia.

Still, it’s easy to understand why “Fiorello!” — with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock of “Fiddler on the Roof” fame — fits into Moon’s purview of reviving “lost” musicals.

Though pleasant, the score is missing tunes that have stood the test of time.

Amanda Johnson, lovely as Thea, LaGuardia’s young wife, gets the best romantic numbers, “Till Tomorrow” and “When Did I Fall In Love.” Katrina Lauren McGraw, equally appealing as LaGuardia’s secretary Marie, who’s secretly in love with her boss, does nicely in a few comic songs. With crusty Damon Runyon-esque characters from New York’s underworld and songs like “Politics and Poker,” “Fiorello!” is often reminiscent of “Guys and Dolls.”

Colin Thomson is excellent as the tough-talking yet civic-minded title character, who helped the downtrodden and unexpectedly rose to power, all the time taking on the city’s political machine.

The jam-packed book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott (“Damn Yankees”) fascinatingly tells LaGuardia’s story, starting in 1915, when he was a lawyer helping immigrants and women striking for fair working conditions, then moving to his election to congress, an unsuccessful mayoral run in 1929 and eventual win in 1933.

Director Karen Altree Piemme leads the uniformly capable cast, featuring Sean Fenton and Matt Hammons as LaGuardia’s loyal law office staffers; Chris Vettel as political insider Ben; and Christopher Nelson and Marisa Cozart as Floyd and Dora, New Yorkers on the rise.

The terrific ensemble does duty in multiple roles, from immigrants to workers to politicians.

Projections with photos and news headlines from the era by Brian Watson provide an interesting backdrop, and music director Daniel Thomas on keyboards and William Berg on woodwinds provide steady accompaniment.

Also of note are improvements in the cozy Gateway, formerly Eureka, theater, including fresh new seats.

Presented by 42nd Street Moon
Where: Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 6 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes March 17
Tickets: $30 to $70
Contact: (415) 255-8207, www.42ndstmoon.org

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