New York City Center Encores! is kicking off its 20th year as it began its first, with an affectionate semi-staged concert revival of "Fiorello!" -- the only Pulitzer-winning musical ever written about a New York mayor.
The cast is not as delightful or dazzling as it was in 1994. This is especially true in the crucial center, where Danny Rutigliano, as the adored, socially committed, famously height-challenged Fiorello LaGuardia, too often seems just a mean little man in a big hat who can sing and dance.
Also the book, which had been usefully truncated in '94 into a basic yada-yada-yada-sing structure to show off the songs, is now restored to what we assume is closer the Jerome Weidman/ George Abbott original. This is an admirable gesture toward authenticity. Alas, the narrative detours and middling humor are not advantages.
And yet, despite all this, there is still much to enjoy in the 1959 Tony-winning show, which married big-hearted sentiment and political satire in ways composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick deepened five years later in "Fiddler on the Roof."
The pleasures, as before, come from the onstage orchestra and from the songs -- especially such comic-gem choruses as "Politics and Poker" (a cynical polka) and "Little Tin Box" (crooked politics as a soft shoe).
Directed by Gary Griffin, the physical staging is modest compared with recent Encores! spectacles, with scenes changed by moving soap boxes. This works fine, except for first-act skirts that make New York immigrants in 1912 look like prairie girls.
Kate Baldwin has her customary sturdy power, but her Italian accent is awful, as the mayor's first wife. Erin Dilly is terrific as his lovelorn girl Friday. Emily Skinner drops in to belt the torchy-diva number, and Shuler Hensley, despite a growly sound, is a treat as the machine boss.
Harnick's lyrics are smart, without pretension, about both psychology and rhythm: "look for us for justice/trust us" or "the lines of poor and friendless/endless." And there is a dark new song that works beautifully -- a minor-key march for Fiorello after the loss of his first election and death of his first wife. It was the last music Bock wrote before he died in 2010. This is its premiere. And this is why we continue to treasure Encores!
WHERE New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St.
INFO $30-$115; 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org
BOTTOM LINE Despite flaws, still a pleasure