You can’t say that the creators of A Bronx Tale: The Musical aren’t emotionally invested in their material. The book for this show receiving its world premiere at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse is written by Chazz Palminteri, who first performed it as a one-man play in 1989 and is still touring with it today. It’s co-directed by four-time Tony Award-winner Jerry Zaks, who staged its non-musical 2007 Broadway production, and Robert De Niro, who made his feature directorial debut with the 1993 film, in which he co-starred with Palminteri.
It would be easy to imagine that the story — about a young Bronx man who falls under the sway of a neighborhood gangster, over the objection of his hard-working bus driver father — might have grown stale by now. But it retains a fierce emotional immediacy in this terrifically entertaining musical, which could well make its way to Broadway.
There’s no shortage of major-league talent involved in this glorified tryout production, including composer Alan Menken, the eight-time Oscar winner whose other awards are too voluminous to mention; lyricist Glenn Slater (School of Rock, Sister Act and The Little Mermaid, as well as the Disney film Tangled); and choreographer Sergio Trujillo (Memphis, Jersey Boys and the current hit On Your Feet!).
The 1960s-set story is narrated by Calogero (Jason Gotay), who tells us how, as a young boy (understudy Vincenzo Faruolo, excellent, at the reviewed performance), he witnessed the cold-blooded murder of a man on the street in front of his Belmont Avenue stoop. The perpetrator was the neighborhood’s reigning gangster Sonny (Nick Cordero), who takes Calogero under his wing when the boy refuses to identify him in a lineup, heeding the unspoken rule that the worst thing to be is a rat.
Calogero, called “C” by his mentor, begins performing odd jobs for Sonny, including rolling his dice for luck when he shoots craps (depicted in the propulsive number “Roll ‘Em”). He also starts making serious money, much to the consternation of his father Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) who fears Sonny’s bad influence and directly confronts him about it.
But despite his love and respect for his father, Calogero can’t resist Sonny and his slickly glamorous lifestyle. “The working man’s a sucker,” Sonny tells the young man, who becomes the prince of the neighborhood thanks to his association with the feared hoodlum.
The story becomes further complicated by the burgeoning romance between the older Calogero and the African-American Jane (Coco Jones), a difficult proposition in the racially divided neighborhood. It eventually leads to a violent series of events, including one in which Calogero becomes painfully aware of the dangers inherent in Sonny’s position.
The semi-autobiographical tale — Palminteri did in fact witness such a murder when he was a young boy — always had the air of an urban fable. So it lends itself quite naturally to the musical form, which only heightens its moral themes.
Palminteri’s book is highly effective in its blend of serious emotion and raucous humor. Thankfully, it retains the original play’s hard edge with copious amounts of profanity and graphically staged violence that make it feel refreshingly unsanitized. It’s also efficient — the show clocks in at a fast-paced 2 hours, 15 minutes, with nary a trace of bloat — although that’s sometimes to its detriment. The second act, featuring a quick assemblage of melodramatic events, at times feels rushed and unconvincing. This is the rare musical that would actually benefit from being longer and fleshing out its characters a bit more.
Menken’s score, heavily influenced by ’50s doo-wop and ’60s pop, is consistently tuneful and peppy, and Slater’s witty but unfancy lyrics cannily reflect the gritty milieu. While a first listen reveals no standout songs, there are plenty of fun numbers, especially two delivered by Sonny: “Nicky Machiavelli,” in which he amusingly reveals his secrets for success; and “One of the Great Ones,” a swinging, Sinatra-style song in which he gives Calogero sweet and funny romantic advice.
The production is filled with clever visual touches, such as Sonny’s criminal cohorts being introduced with mug shot-style poses accompanied by the loud sounds of flashbulbs popping, and, at the end of “One of the Great Ones,” a vision of a young woman on a fire escape who represents a lost love of Sonny’s that might have saved him from a life of crime. Zaks is clearly responsible for the adept musical staging, while De Niro no doubt contributed to the show’s surprisingly powerful emotional depth.
The performances, too, are terrific, with Gotay strong-voiced and appealing as the easily influenced youth; Blake moving and restrained as the frustrated father; Lucia Giannetta shining in her few prominent moments as Calogero’s loving mother; and Jones exhibiting powerful pipes as the love interest.
But it’s Cordero who steals the show. The lanky actor — playing a gangster character not far removed from his Tony-nominated turn in the Woody Allen musical Bullets Over Broadway (which, funnily enough, was also originated by Palminteri onscreen) — perfectly balances charm and menace in his compelling performance. He makes it easy to see why Calogero would be so irresistibly drawn to Sonny, giving this Bronx Tale a memorable emotional resonance.
Venue: Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, New Jersey
Cast: Richard H. Blake, Joshua Colley, Nick Cordero, Lucia Giannetta, Jason Gotay, Coco Jones, Gilbert L. Bailey II, Joe Barbara, Michael Barra, Isiah Tyrelle Boyd, Jonathan Brody, Ted Brunetti, Brittany Conigatti, Kaleigh Cronin, Trista Dollison, David Michael Garry, Aisha Jackson, Jess LeProtto, Carlos Lopez, Corey Mosello, Dominic Nolfi, Paul Salvatoriello, Joey Sorge, Kirsten Tucker, Keith White
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 the Paper Mill Playhouse