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Theater Review: 'Fiorello!' -- 4 stars

Danny Rutigliano and the cast in

Danny Rutigliano and the cast in "Fiorello!" Credit: Danny Rutigliano and the cast in "Fiorello!"

4 stars

How lucky we are to have the City Center's Encores! series, which is now in its 20th season of presenting semi-staged, starry-cast, full-orchestra productions of rarely seen musicals, several of which have transferred to Broadway for extended runs (most notably "Chicago.

To mark the occasion, they are offering a new production of the 1959 Pulitzer-winning musical "Fiorello!" the first show presented under the Encores! banner back in 1994.

"Fiorello!" which explores the career of Fiorello H. LaGuardia in the early 20th century and his reformist crusade against the corruption of Tammany Hall before becoming mayor of New York City, is perhaps the quintessential Encores! show.

Despite having a superlative score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock and well-crafted book by Jerome Weidman, it has never been revived on Broadway. Compare that to "Gypsy," which opened the same year as "Fiorello!" and has since received four Broadway revivals.

Gary Griffin's very satisfying production, which features little staging, is marked by its firm emphasis on the story, which is old-fashioned in structure, as well as a cavalcade of strong performances by musical theater pros.

Rather than cast a celeb, the title role (which was first played by Tom Bosley) went to Danny Rutigliano, who dynamically captures LaGuardia's fiery spirit and brings an emotional edge to the ambitious figure. It also helps that Rutigliano resembles LaGuardia physically.

The excellent cast also includes a scratchy-voiced Shuler Hensley as a Republican party leader, a sincere Erin Dilly as LaGuardia's long-suffering secretary and a characteristically daffy Jenn Gambatese as a low-paid factory worker who becomes romantically involved with a cop turned city government crony.

So allow me to raise a toast to Encores! which has not only presented dozens of great musicals, but changed the standards under which they are revived for the better: to emphasize score over spectacle. Here's to 20 more years!

If you go: "Fiorello!" plays through Sunday at City Center. 131 W. 55th St., 212-581-1212,


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