Danny Rutigliano has been kicking around New York theater circles for years. (His last Broadway credit: the bellhop in the 2011 revival Born Yesterday.) But the fire-hydrant-sized actor finally gets his moment in the center-stage spotlight in the new revival of composer Sheldon Harnick and lyricist Jerry Bock’s 1959 biomusical Fiorello!, running through this Sunday at New York City Center as part of the Encores! series. Rutigliano makes the most of the opportunity, bringing an infectious energy (and some surprisingly light-footed dance moves) to the role of Fiorello LaGuardia, the five-foot-tall New York city pol who challenged the corrupt Tammany Hall machine in the early 20th century before winning his first mayoral race in 1933. (The role famously earned a Tony for Tom Bosley, who’s perhaps better known as Mr. Cunningham in Happy Days.)
Director Gary Giffin’s semi-staged production is a true ensemble effort, offering standout moments for veterans like Shuler Hensley as a Republican party boss, Adam Heller as a cynical LaGuardia aide, and Emily Skinner as a showgirl hired by LaGuardia’s rival to sing a campaign song (the catchy “Gentleman Jimmy”). But the real showstoppers are the two leading ladies. The ever-luminous Kate Baldwin may seem miscast as LaGuardia’s first love, an immigrant from Trieste who only belatedly warms to him – it’s hard to imagine many northern Italians with Baldwin’s red hair and porcelain skin (and her faux-talian accent doesn’t help her case for verisimilitude). But when she sings, all is forgiven. She delivers the second-act ballad “When Did I Fall in Love?” with crystalline vocal clarity and supple emotionality. As Marie, the super-efficient LaGuardia aide who’s long pined for her boss, Erin Dilly conveys an all-American spunk that’s completing winning.
Fiorello!, which seems a little more dated than later Harnick-Bock collaborations like The Apple Tree and community-theater staple Fiddler on the Roof, was the very first production in the justly beloved Encores! program. In its two decades, the series has had a remarkable track record at resuscitating overlooked and underseen shows from the dusty vaults of old Broadway. The biggest success story remains Chicago, the 1975 John Kander-Fred Ebb musical that played Encores! in May 1996 before opening that fall on Broadway for a Tony-winning run that’s still playing even after yielding Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning 2002 film. In addition, Encores! has provided a springboard for successful Broadway revivals of Wonderful Town, The Apple Tree, Finian’s Rainbow, and the Patti LuPone-led Gypsy. And producers recently announced plans to mount the classic-jazz revue Cotton Club Parade on Broadway this fall following two successful concert runs, the most recent featuring Glee’s Amber Riley last November. To quote the opening number of Fiorello!, the Encores! series is “on the side of the angels.”