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Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale seems to have had more than nine lives. First performed as a solo piece in Los Angeles and off-Broadway in 1989 by the then-unknown writer-performer, it was revived on Broadway in 2007. Palminteri has toured with it off-and-on ever since, and co-starred in the 1993 film adaptation with Robert DeNiro, who also directed.
So it’s hardly surprising that this simultaneously sentimental and gritty coming-of-age tale has received musical treatment at the hands of several of its former creatives. For this Broadway production first seen earlier this year at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, the co-directors are DeNiro and Jerry Zaks (who staged the original solo version), with Palminteri as the book writer. Despite its by-now overfamiliarity, the piece achieves a new freshness in this entertaining musicalization, featuring a tuneful score by two Disney veterans — eight-time Oscar-winner Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) and Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid, Tangled), whose previous collaborations include the screen-to-stage musicals Sister Act and Leap of Faith.
The semi-autobiographical tale revolves around Calogero (Bobby Conte Thornton), who as a 9-year-old witnesses a murder committed by his neighborhood’s reigning hoodlum, Sonny (Nick Cordero). After the young boy refuses to finger him to the cops, the grateful gangster takes him under his wing, rewarding him handsomely for performing odd jobs.
This leads to an inevitable conflict between Sonny and Calogero’s bus-driver father, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake), an honorable working stiff desperate to prevent his son from succumbing to the temptations of a life of crime. The differences between the two mentors can be summed up by their respective philosophies: Lorenzo tells his son that “the saddest thing in life is wasted talent,” while Sonny declares, “The working man’s a sucker.”
Calogero narrates the 1960s-set story, beginning — appropriately enough — with a segment set on Belmont Avenue featuring male doo-wop singers harmonizing under a streetlight (scenic designer Beowulf Boritt evokes this locale, along with many others of the Bronx neighborhoods, with affectionate stylization).
The show veers into West Side Story territory in the second act with its increasingly complicated storyline about the burgeoning interracial romance between Calogero and Jane (Ariana DeBose), who lives a few streets over in the black part of town. Ironically, it’s only the vicious Sonny who seems unconcerned with the complications of such a relationship.
Because it resembles an urban fairy tale, Palminteri’s story works even better as a musical than it has in its earlier incarnations where its stereotypical aspects felt more glaring. His skillful adaptation thankfully retains the gritty language and violence as well as its often raucous humor.
Although refreshingly brisk (it clocks in at just over two hours, including intermission), there are problems. A Bronx Tale — in the second half, packed with a succession of melodramatic incidents — can feel rushed and unconvincing. Furthermore, the show loses the thread of its main theme, Calogero’s conflicted feelings about the two most important adult males in his life.
While the score doesn’t feature any breakout songs, it is tuneful and fun, with Menken smartly incorporating period-perfect ‘50s doo-wop and ‘60s pop influences. Cordero sings two of the best numbers: “Nicky Machiavelli,” featuring clever lyrics by Slater that amusingly detail Sonny’s survival methods as learned by the Italian Renaissance writer; and “One of the Great Ones,” a swinging, Sinatra-style number about unforgettable love stories. The latter is followed by the gangster telling Calogero how to apply “The Sonny Test” to his new girlfriend, a hilarious piece of advice that, with Cordero’s expert delivery, garners waves of audience laughter.
Veteran musical-comedy director Zaks (Guys and Dolls, La Cage aux Folles) adds clever touches to the staging, such as Sonny’s colorfully named henchmen introducing themselves by posing for mugshots, with flashbulbs popping. De Niro’s contributions are less easily discerned, although there’s no denying that the characters have more emotional depth than usual for such a formulaic piece. The performers clearly benefited from his input; especially Cordero, in a role not too far removed from his Tony Award-nominated turn in the Woody Allen musical Bullets Over Broadway. The actor’s charismatic performance makes it easy to understand his character’s allure for an impressionable young boy — he’s likable but not lovable, projecting affability as well as undeniable menace.
Making his Broadway debut, Thornton is appealing and strong-voiced as the older Calogero, although he’s nearly outshone by Hudson Loverro, who plays the character’s pint-sized, younger counterpart. The kid almost stops the show with his solo number “I Like It,” in which he brags about feeling like the prince of the neighborhood. The supporting players are all solid, particularly Blake, who brings moving gravitas as the decent, hard-working father.
Though hardly sophisticated entertainment, A Bronx Tale has genuine charms that will likely appeal to, pardon the expression, the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. And with Jersey Boys about to close, they’ll be looking for another dose of outer-borough nostalgia.
Venue: Longacre Theatre, New York
Cast: Nick Cordero, Richard H. Blake, Bobby Conte Thornton, Ariana Debose, Lucia Giannetta, Bradley Gibson, Hudson Loverro, Michelle Aravena, Gilbert L. Bailey II, Joe Barbara, Michael Barra, Jonathan Brody, Ted Brunetti, Gerald Caesar, Brittany Conigatti, Kaleigh Cronin, Trista Dollison, David Michael Garry, Rory Max Kaplan, Charlie Marcus, Dominic Nolfi, Wonu Ogunfowora, Christian Pitts, Paul Salvatoriello, Joey Sorge, Athan Sporek, Joseph J. Simeone, Cary Tedder, Kirstin Tucker, Keith White
Book: Chazz Palminteri
Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Glenn Sater
Directors: Robert De Niro, Jerry Zaks
Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo
Music supervisor & arrangements: Ron Melrose
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Presented by Tommy Mottola, The Dodgers, Tribeca Productions, Evamere Entertainment, Neighborhood Fling, Jeffrey Sine, Cohen Private Ventures and Grant Johnson, in association with Paper Mill Playhouse