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As a moderately successful character actor at the age of 40, Chazz Palminteri decided to take his fate into his own hands by writing A Bronx Tale, a semi-autobiographical one-man show starring himself in 18 roles. It opened in Los Angeles before moving off-Broadway, where it had a successful run in 1989. Broke at the time, Palminteri was offered $1 million for the film rights, but when producers wouldn’t let him star, he turned them down. Then Robert De Niro appeared in his dressing room and offered to make the movie just as Palminteri wanted it.
The 1993 directorial debut by De Niro, who starred alongside Palminteri, grossed a modest $17.3 million at the box office, but the show lived on to see a 2007 Broadway revival directed by four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks (Hello, Dolly!). In 2016, A Bronx Tale: The Musical opened on Broadway in a production officially co-directed by Zaks and De Niro. It played for 700 performances before this crowd-pleasing though familiar tale of star-crossed lovers and the battle for a young man’s soul launched its national tour and now comes to Hollywood.
Set in the 1960s, the show opens with the kicky ensemble number “Belmont Avenue,” mixing rock, jazz and acrobatic dance moves choreographed by Sergio Trujillo (On Your Feet, Jersey Boys). The ensemble makes ample use of scenic designer Beowulf Boritt’s uncluttered Bronx street corner, suggested by a stenciled backdrop, along with fire escapes and a lamppost dropped in from the catwalks.
Before “Belmont Avenue” is done, 10-year-old Calogero (Frankie Leoni) witnesses a shooting on his front doorstep by local hoodlum Sonny (Joe Barbara), in a scene taken from Palminteri’s own childhood. It is the boy’s first experience with the power of fear, followed moments later by the power of love when his salt-of-the-earth father, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake), shields him from the crime, taking him upstairs to their apartment.
Eight years later, Calogero (Joey Barreiro) has become beguiled by Sonny, who is always flush with easy cash, respected by all, drives a flashy car and dresses in style. Lorenzo, by contrast, busts his hump, day in and day out, and all he’s got to show for it is a humble walkup and a family he struggles to support.
Lorenzo’s advice to his son is summed up in “Look to Your Heart,” a song that showcases Blake’s considerable singing voice, honed on Broadway where he originated the role. But before the night is through, the song’s message is returned to over and over, forcing the point with the subtlety of a Bronx cheer. Blake is the most vital of the show’s 11 holdovers from the Broadway cast, blending strength and sensitivity with his exuberant tenor vocals, though his character’s dimensions are as limited as his stage time.
A few blocks away from Belmont Avenue is Webster Avenue, an African-American enclave and home to Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell), who has captured her classmate Calogero’s heart. Italians and blacks don’t mix, or so they’re told. But mix the two young lovers do, for a short time finding bliss in the duet, “In a World Like This.” As tensions rise between the neighborhoods, Calogero witnesses the destructive power of fear, losing several of his closest friends.
While Barreiro, as the teenage Calogero, was not in the original cast, the young actor has no difficulty anchoring the show, serving as both narrator and protagonist, and stepping in and out of the action throughout. His tentative machismo, modeled on Sonny, is underpinned by adolescent confusion, making him relatable even to those who have never been to the Bronx.
As Jane, Bell brings a palpable sweetness and soft soprano vocals to a role she understudied on Broadway. And Michelle Aravena as Calogero’s mother Rosina reprises her Broadway performance, bringing warmth and sensitivity to her monologue about Lorenzo in his youth, followed by a reprise of “Look to Your Heart.”
Upstaging nearly everyone is Sonny, with Barbara taking over the role originated by Nick Cordero, and later Palminteri himself. Mixing Goodfellas‘ Ray Liotta with a dash of Frank Sinatra, Barbara is cool and charismatic, making fear seem fun in songs like “Nicky Machiavelli,” extolling the virtues of the tyrannous 15th-century political philosopher. His torch song, “One of the Great Ones,” about the girl that got away, is a Sinatra-like showstopper, highlighting Glenn Slater’s lyrics.
Lauded composer Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Aladdin), winner of eight Oscars, a Tony and numerous other major awards, delivers busy compositions that seem to work overtime producing a vanilla-like blandness. Reuniting with Slater (his collaborator on The Little Mermaid, Sister Act and Leap of Faith), the duo delivers an almost continuous score, bordering on operetta, but the legitimate highlights are few.
While both Zaks and De Niro are listed as directors, it looks a lot more like Zaks’ show, even including the crap-shooting ensemble piece, “Roll ‘Em,” a pale shadow of “Luck Be a Lady,” from his Tony-winning 1992 Guys and Dolls revival.
Palminteri’s book provides nothing groundbreaking, but that doesn’t keep A Bronx Tale from amounting to a perfectly engaging night at the theater. Its lessons are rudimentary, but two years of Trump’s presidency has made interracial strife, fear versus love and a song in praise of Machiavelli sadly more relevant than ever.
The tour travels next to San Francisco on Nov. 27 and will continue to hit major stops across the U.S. through August 2019.
Venue: Hollywood Pantages Theater, Los Angeles
Cast: Richard H. Blake, Joshua Colley, Joe Barbara, Frankie Leoni, Shane Pry, Sean Bell, Joey Calveri, Michelle Aravena, John Gardiner, Mike Backes, Michael Barra, Robert Pieranunzi, Paul Salvatoriello, Giovanni DiGabriele, Joseph Sammour, Jason Williams, Ashley McManus, Antoin Beverly, Brianna-Marie Bell, Brandi Porter, Joshua Michael Burrage, Haley Hannah, Kirk Lydell, Kyli Rae
Directors: Robert De Niro, Jerry Zaks
Book: Chazz Palminteri, based on his play
Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Glenn Slater
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo
Presented by Tommy Mottola, the Dodgers, Tribeca Productions, Evamere Entertainment, Neighborhood Films, in association with Paper Mill Playhouse
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