A Bronx Tale
at the James M. Nederlander Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – In 1989, actor-writer Chazz Palminteri opened a one-man play off off Broadway called “A Bronx Tale.” The show was Palminteri’s nostalgic autobiography set in 1960 and 1968 about growing up in a tough Italian-American neighborhood in New York City.
“A Bronx Tale” was a mini hit, transferring to Broadway, followed by a motion picture directed by Robert De Niro in 1993. The one-man show was revived on Broadway in 2007 and then profitably toured two years later, including a stop in Chicago in 2009. With all its commercial and critical success, the obvious next step was converting the show into a musical. That happened in 2016 and after a Broadway run “A Bronx Tale” hit the road, currently stopping at the Nederlander Theater for a two-week visit. De Niro and Jerry Zaks are credited as co-directors.
The current “Bronx Tale” incarnation has expanded from a single actor into a cast of two dozen mostly young and talented performers, and a score with music by Alan Menken (who composed hit scores for the Walt Disney film musicals “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Aladdin, with lyrics by Glenn Slater. Palminteri doesn’t appear live but he wrote the book, which closely follows his original script.
“A Bronx Tale” follows the early life of a Palminteri stand-in named Calogero. The lad lives with his parents in a blue collar neighborhood centering on Belmont Avenue in the Bronx (the street gave its name to the popular early rock ‘in’ roll singing group Dion and the Belmonts). The neighborhood is a mix of hard working lower middle-class families (Calogero’s father is a bus driver) with the wise guys in the mob. The leading gangster in the neighborhood is Sonny, smooth and ingratiating and a hero to the boy. The boy witnesses Sonny killing a man but refuses to finger Sonny to the police. That “I’m no snitch” solidarity earns Sonny’s friendship and protection and sets up a conflict between the father, who warns his son that Sonny is a thug and not a hero, and the gangster’s allure as a crime leader will send the boy down the wrong path.
In the second act the plot expands to explore the racial tensions of the time, when Calogero falls for a young black girl living in a neighborhood a few blocks away geographically but culturally in different worlds. The narrative ventures eventually into “West Side Story” territory with the black girl, the Puerto Rican heroine and the white Tony the Italian. The story explodes with some violence followed by several verbal flourishes calling for love and understanding all around.
The touring production is of Broadway caliber, several of the principles being veterans of the Broadway production. The show nicely captures the feeling of the 1960’s through its musical sounds, though none of the numbers stick in the mind beyond their narrative and mood functions. The Palminteri book, unsurprisingly, is the show’s strength. The one-man show that visited Chicago 10 years ago was one of the great local theater experiences of that season. Palminteri brought to life all the characters of his youth in the hood’ with wit and feeling that totally enveloped then viewers.
I suspect that audiences who weren’t exposed to the one-man show will rate the musical higher than those with fond memories of Palminteri ‘s captivating 2009 reminiscences. Calogero is the central character but Joe Barbara’s Sonny steals the show, a figure out of a Martin Scorsese film, ruthless but oddly sympathetic and certainly charismatic enough to capture the hero worship of a boy with a bus driver for a father.
Sonny is respected and feared, ruling his little fiefdom with an iron hand. His minions have flavorful names like Rudy the Voice, Jojo the Whale, Frankie Coffeecake, and Crazy Mario. In real life they would be a menacing lot, but on stage they exist primarily for comic relief, forming an almost endearing “Guys and Dolls’ backdrop to a world that can easily seduce a boy living in a household struggling from paycheck to paycheck. Barbara’s multi layered performance enriches the entire evening dominated by character stereotypes.
The character of Calogero is shared by two young actors, 10-year old Frankie Leoni (played in some performances by Shane Pry) and Joey Barreiro the older Calogero who hits the bull’s-eye as an impressionable teenager pulled between his decent father and the glamorous macho world of Sonny and the wise guys. Brianna-Marie Bell is outstanding as the black girl who becomes Calogero’s love interest in a world where black and white do not mix, even if the characters only live a few streets apart. The racial conflicts of 1968 virtually take over the show during the second act, nostalgia supplanted by harsh current events.
The production values are first rate, especially for a traveling show, with atmospheric big city backdrops of fire escapes and skylines designed by Beowulf Boritt complemented by Howell Binkley’s lighting, Gareth Owen’s sound design, and William Ivey Long’s period costumes. Sergio Trujillo’s rock ‘n’ roll choreography provides essential energy for the staging.
The opening night audience was heavy on young people who responded enthusiastically to Palminteri’s world as filtered through the memory of its young hero. Like most nostalgia, sentimentality sometimes oozes into the realism of the moment, but what’s a musical without a little sentimentality to charm the viewer? And the generational conflict between father and son especially might strike recognizable personal chords among many youthful viewers. I liked this show but I liked Palminteri’s one-man version more, maybe because I saw it first.
The show gets a rating of
“A Bronx Tale” runs through March 24 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street. Performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. (no 7:30 p.m. performance March 24). Tickets are $22 to $98. Call 800 775 2000 or visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.
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