02/01/2013 08:15 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

First Nighter: Fiorello! Runs for Musical Office Again and Succeeds

There may be two outstanding reasons why in 1960 Fiorello! was only the third musical to nab the Pulitzer Prize for Drama -- after the George and Ira Gershwin-George S, Kaufman-Morrie Ryskind Of Thee I Sing (1932) and the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II South Pacific (1950). Both reasons are craftily on display in the sparkling Encores! revival at City Center.

They're the Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock ditties "Politics and Poker" and "Little Tin Box," which mock the explosive subject matter in a not dissimilar way the Gershwins earlier stuck a pin in that bloated balloon. As directed by Gary Griffin and choreographed by Alex Sanchez, the numbers make the most of a male septet. The satirical items -- led by gurgle-voiced Shuler Hensley having a good time as Ben Marino, a political boss fighting Tammany Hall -- skewer the always controversial topic and cheer audiences in a way the Pulitzer choosers liked back then if they were going to crown a tuner over a straight play.

Harnick, Bock and librettists Jerome Weidman and George Abbott (who also directed the original production) made it their business to deal vigorously and appreciatively with one of New York City's legendary figures. They aimed -- nicely, too -- to honor dynamo neighborhood lawyer Fiorello H. LaGuardia (Danny Rutigliano) as he defied odds with his street-cred appeal.

They show him first becoming a congressman for the City's multi-racial 14th district, then a World War I hero and, ultimately, a NYC mayor perhaps now recalled more often than not for reading the comics on the radio to kids during the 1945 newspaper deliveryman strike. Yes, it might be that whenever New Yorkers think of him, they're thinking of his broadcasts and not his representing the beginning of the end of tyrannical Tammany Hall. And that's if even Tammany Hall hasn't been dropped into oblivion's garbage can.

But as rich a figure as LaGuardia is -- and was going on 54 years ago (Fiorello! opened in late December, 1959) -- his rise, his dip when defeated in his initial mayoral try by popular man-about-town Jimmy Walker, and then his further rise to City Hall wasn't enough for the creators. The biographical arc didn't provide the grist they thought necessary to satisfy traditional musical comedy audiences.

This explains why the property's seesawing charm -- make no mistake there's plenty of it -- relies on the inclusion of a couple romances and the predictably resulting love songs. These involve activist and first LaGuardia wife Thea (Kate Baldwin, a prominent Harnick interpreter nowadays), loyal-through-thick-and-thin assistant and unrequited lover Marie (Erin Dilly) as well as secondary love interest Dora (Jenn Gambatese), who's smitten by a Tammany Hall-favoring cop (Jeremy Bobb) and gets to warble cutely about it.

Sorry to say then that Fiorello! isn't a start-to-finish fail-safe undertaking. But not too sorry to say it, because there's enough talent on the City Center stage -- where John Lee Beatty has amusingly positioned eight soap boxes for Fiorello to get up on -- that the plot's soft spots are sufficiently bolstered.

Rutigliano is the prime hero, bringing the not-that-long-ago hero he's impersonating to gritty, grinning life. (Tom Bosley was the first Fiorello, and -- explain this, if you can -- won a Tony as best featured actor!) Close to a dead-ringer for the late mayor, Rutigliano sings, dances and ceaselessly stirs the adoring crowd both on-stage and in the audience. While lush soprano Baldwin as Thea -- who's shown to marry Fiorello less for romance than for respect -- delivers "When Did I Fall in Love?" she may be expressing not only Thea's reaction to Fiorello but the audience's to Rutigliano.

All cast members -- including the eight elegant dancers under Sanchez's hand -- supply the verve and polish needed to make the Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner decidedly top-drawer, when in other circumstances it could be classed a second-drawer offering, For that accomplishment he above-mentioned players deserve applause, as does Emily Skinner, who arrives in the second act as Broadway personality Mitzi Travers to sing "Gentleman Jimmy," a hotsy-totsy Texas Guinan-conjuring number about LaGuardia's chief rival.

Skinner's ditty is only one in the eye-and-ear-popping line-up that Harnick and Bock turned out so's to put themselves on the list of important songwriters for a new generation. Maybe Abbott and associates were occupied glossing workable ingredients, but the tunesmiths went about producing the real thing. Bock's melodies are refreshingly catchy. Harnick's lyrics are genuinely witty and always genuinely warm. Take "On the Side of the Angels" in which LaGuardia law-office right-hand man Morris (the properly loyal but tetchy Adam Heller) laments "I've yet to see the meek inheriting the earth, but we inherit them." Then there are the rousing "The Name's LaGuardia," the defiant "Marie's Law" and the lilting "Till Tomorrow."

Usually with any musical the series lights on and then turns its Ken Billington lights on, the question "Will it move to Broadway?" comes up. Fiorello! was the first Encores! series entry 20 years ago and didn't transfer then, but this re-revival prompts serious thought. Maybe there isn't a wider audience for it today -- even in a politics-mad time that makes those less-than-innocent bygone times look pristine. But if not, that's a pity.