What is more powerful: fear or love? The autobiographical musical “A Bronx Tale” explores this question, with a lot of heart along the way.
Many readers will be familiar with actor Chazz Palminteri from his roles in well-known films like “Bullets Over Broadway” and “The Usual Suspects.” However, you might not know that he is the writer of “A Bronx Tale,” and that the story comes from Palminteri’s own past.
“A Bronx Tale” is the story of young Sicilian-American Calogero (Joey Barreiro), who acts as the narrator of the story. He talks about how as a child (Frankie Leoni), he became entangled in the affairs of local gangster Sonny (Joey Calveri at my performance) after witnessing a murder. However, even though Calogero is young, he knows the neighborhood’s official no-snitching policy and Sonny ends up owing him a favor. The relationship is cemented when Calogero brings Sonny luck during an important game of craps at the local club.
However, one person who is decidedly displeased with this burgeoning relationship is Calogero’s father, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake.) C, as he is now called by Sonny and his crew, is torn between the flashy lifestyle of Sonny and the admiration he has for his father, a hard-working but underpaid bus driver. This situation is further complicated when C falls for Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell), an African-American classmate. His mother (Michelle Aravena) tries to help him navigate these problems, but as tensions in his beloved Bronx neighborhood come to a head, he will have to choose his path carefully, as the consequences could be deadly.
…it’s an engaging true story that reminds us that one of the greatest tragedies in the world is wasted talent, but certainly, none is wasted in this production.
Palminteri initially adapted his story into a one-man show, which he performed in the 1980s in Los Angeles and later moved off-Broadway. This proved to be his big break, and the show was adapted into a critically successful 1993 film. Robert De Niro made his directorial debut with the film version, and also co-starred with Palminteri. After the film, Palminteri revived his one-man-show, this time for a successful Broadway run. Finally, after a decade long development process, the musical adaptation of “A Bronx Tale” premiered on Broadway December 1, 2016, where it ran for an impressive 700 performances.
The tagline of this show is “‘Jersey Boys’ meets ‘West Side Story,'” which is a fair comparison. The show has the doo-wop sound of the 1960s (when Palminteri was growing up,) so stylistically there is a connection to “Jersey Boys,” while the racially centered conflict between the Italians and the African-Americans does hearken back to “West Side Story.” However, to consider this musical as simply derivative is to do it an injustice. There is an incredible energy that this show puts out, and even though the contents include some serious and dark points, there is unexpected comedy peppered throughout. The relationships are engaging and the songs are toe-tapping. The book was written by Palminteri himself, so it rings very true to both his play and experience and De Niro joined forces with noted and Tony award-winning Broadway director Jerry Zaks to co-direct this production. Finally, musical royalty Alan Menken provided the music for this show, along with lyrics from Tony award winner Glenn Slater.
Barreiro very ably anchors this production. His voice and accent are both on-point, and he is able to successfully navigate both the comedy and drama this story requires. He shines on the opening number, “Belmont Avenue,” which opens the show and introduces you to Calogero’s world. Calveri, who portrayed Sonny for the show that I viewed, was excellent in this difficult and demanding role. The dichotomy of this character is paramount to this story; he is a gangster and a killer, which we see only moments after the performance begins.
However, what’s harder is that he does actually become a father-figure to C, and truly comes to care for him. It can be difficult to provide such a nuanced portrayal for such a character, but Calveri did it with seeming ease. He exuded huge amounts of energy in “Roll ‘Em,” inspired fear and intimidation during “Giving Back the Money,” and perhaps most surprisingly gave a sweet and charming lesson in love for “One of the Great Ones.” However, his standout number was the quirky “Nicky Machiavelli.” This number was up-tempo and fun, with Calvert’s voice impressive, but it was deceptively deep. This is when Sonny truly starts to let C into his confidence and shares with him a glimpse of life running the neighborhood, and all the consequences that go with the choices he has made to get where he is.
Similarly, Blake also turns in a powerhouse performance as C’s father Lorenzo, reprising the role from Broadway. He is able to represent a father’s conflict when he sees the son he loves so much turning down what he perceives as a dark and dangerous path. He also represents an interesting counterpoint to Sonny, as these two men both care about C, but are very different people. He provides some beautifully performed advice to young Calogero with the endearing “Look to Your Heart,” and provides a touching moment at the end of the show when he makes peace with the other father figure in his son’s life- thanking him for protecting him when his real father couldn’t.
Bell’s voice is unique and powerful, and she provides a compelling performance as Jane. She and Barreiro are both excellent at representing the challenges of love in a world that rejects the different, and their performance of “Out of Your Head” is engaging and heartfelt. She also starts out Act II with a vocal bang, as she leads the orchestra in with some stunning acapella notes. Aravena also does an expert job with her role as Italian mother Rosina; she has a great comedic moment in “Giving Back the Money,” and then pivots ably into dramatic ballad “Look to Your Heart (Reprise.)” The supporting cast is also fantastic- especially the tight harmonies of the doo-wop quartet and the intensely high-energy dancing that opens both acts. However, the true treat of this performance was Leoni as young Calogero. His acting was right on, and his voice was incredibly impressive. One of this reviewer’s favorite numbers in the entire show was Act I’s “I Like It,” because of the joyful energy Leoni brought to the role. His voice was awesome- tone and pitch were perfect, and he danced right alongside his adult counterparts with ease. It was incredibly impressive and the audience let him know it.
The set was engaging and adaptive, mostly utilizing mobile set pieces on wheels and sweeping backdrops to allow the space to transform as you moved from block to block within the Bronx (Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt.) The choreography was a standout, ably adapting authentic 1960s moves with a musical theatre lens (Choreography by Sergio Trujillo.) The live music also helped to drive the production’s impact (Ron Melrose) and the expert costumes helped to transport the audience to another time and place (William Ivey Long.)
“A Bronx Tale” is only here in our neighborhood for a short time, but I recommend checking out theirs before they are gone – it’s an engaging true story that reminds us that one of the greatest tragedies in the world is wasted talent, but certainly, none is wasted in this production. One particular treat at the performance I attended was a surprise appearance by Palminteri himself! He took the stage at the end of the show to thank the audience, and even graciously signed autographs and took photos with fans outside after the show.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: This production utilizes smoke, haze, strobe lights, loud gunfire, and profane language. This includes some racial epithets and violence. Audiences over 16 are recommended.
“A Bronx Tale” is playing now through March 31st, 2019. For more information on tickets, click here.