Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley
A Bronx Tale
The setting is Belmont, "the Little Italy of the Bronx." It is 1960. The neighborhood, along with its criminal enterprises, is under the thumb of crime boss Sonny. Happy nine-year-old Calogero's naiveté is shattered when he witnesses Sonny shoot another man in the head after a dispute over a parking spot. Asked by the police to identify the shooter, Calogero follows the code of the street and refuses to identify Sonny. As a result, Sonny takes a liking to the boy and makes him his mascot, throwing money his way. Calogero's father Lorenzo, a hard working bus driver, strongly objects to his son's involvement with Sonny.
Fast forward to 1968. Lorenzo's efforts to keep Calogero away from the high-riding Sonny have only driven a wedge between him and his now seventeen-year-old son. Calogero even has a small street crew of his own. Blacks have moved to nearby streets and attend the local high school. Calogero takes a shine to Jane, a black girl who attends his school, as tensions mount between black and Italian youths over control of the streets. Trouble is brewing on several fronts, and ... you don't want to hear any more until you are in the theatre experiencing it.
Suffice it to say that A Bronx Tale powerfully relates this story while delivering robust humor, complexity in its depiction of characters, their relationships and values, and an upbeat, melodious score which is certain to please.
The intensely autobiographical A Bronx Tale originated as a one-man play written by then fledgling actor Chazz Palminteri, who performed it in the initial 1989 Off-Broadway production for its nine week run. This led to a fully fleshed out movie version (released in 1993) directed by Robert De Niro from a screenplay by Palminteri, and starring Palminteri (Sonny) and De Niro (Lorenzo). In 2008-09, a production of the original play with Palminteri performing under the direction of Jerry Zaks, played on Broadway, achieving an 18 week run.
Now, A Bronx Tale seems set to reach its apogee. Chazz Palminteri (book) has written a musical version which is faithful to his play and movie while managing to pack in all that is essential to the property whose stage time is approximately the same length as the movie. Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks (abetted by choreographer Sergio Trujillo) have returned to co-direct, interweaving varied elements into the complex and demanding framework of musical theatre with exceptional success. The evocative scenic design of Beowulf Boritt (anchored by four mobile steel towers each depicting a storefront with a fire escape and the frontage of the walk-up apartments above it, and a drop down apartment entrance doorway above a stoop at the center) helps keep the show moving along rapidly. The period costumes of William Ivey Long are sharply evocative.
Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater deliver a most delightful score. Menken has written lively, albeit relaxed, readily accessible melodies. I'll date myself by noting that a particular favorite song of mine is the Sinatra styled, nice and easy ballad "One of the Great Ones," which finds Sonny giving advice on dating to Calogero. Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen didn't do it any better. The "inspirational" ballad "Look to Your Heart" is particularly moving and effective in its second act reprise. The upbeat song and dance production number "I Like It" is a true showstopper. It is led by "Young Calogero," who at the age of nine is enjoying all the "respect," attention, and goodies that come to him by way of being Sonny's favorite.
The rich detail of Nick Cordero's personification of Sonny is a show unto itself. The complexity is in the script. While there may not be much in the way of ambivalence toward this gangster here, I had feelings toward Sonny that were more negative than ambivalence. However, without fudging his performance, Cordero managed to seduce this viewer to view Sonny non-judgmentally. Quite a task, but necessary for A Bronx Tale to fully succeed. Additionally, Cordero never misses a punch line and delivers his musical numbers with precise effectiveness.
Jason Gotay is a sympathetic and polished presence as Calogero. His smooth singing as the doo wop soloist is delightful. It is Calogero who narrates this tale of his formative years, and Gotay effortlessly transitions between being the narrator and his seventeen-year-old self. As nine-year-old "Young Calogero," Joshua Colley is amazingly sharp, strong, and confident. Colley seems too good to be true. And that's a good thing. I am sick and tired of being a curmudgeon in reviewing child performers so I'm delighted to be able to note that this young man is a superlative performer.
Lucia Giannetti gives a particularly moving performance as Calogero's mother Rosina. Richard H. Blake is stalwart and effective as Lorenzo, the conscience of this musical. Coco Jones nicely limns the conflicted emotions of Jane. Jonathan Brody, Michael Barra, Ted Brunetti, Paul Salvatoriello, Jess LeProtto, Dominic Nolfi, Keith White, and Joey Sorge provide considerable color and humor as various Belmont neighborhood thugs and wise guys. There are no weak links in the strong twenty-five member company.
The must see new musical A Bronx Tale is a triumph that appears destined to become a staple of American musical theatre. It has a deceptively complex, dramatically powerful, wise, witty and compassionate book, and a lively, tuneful score featuring doo-wop melodies easily on par with the classics of the 1960s, supplemented by first rate pop and theatre music in the style of the American Songbook.
A Bronx Tale continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday & Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday & Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 7 pm); Matinees: Thursday, Saturday & Sunday 1:30 pm) through March 6, 2016, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
A Bronx Tale: The Musical Music by Alan Menken; Book by Chazz Palminteri: Lyrics by Glenn Slater; directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks; Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo