A Bronx Tale continues at the Longacre Theatre, New York.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Among the five boroughs that make up New York City, the Bronx lacks the high-priced glamour that marks Manhattan and the gentrified bohemian magnetism of Brooklyn, but it does have several claims to fame.
It houses a famous zoo, a great botanical garden and, of course, a nonpareil baseball team, the New York Yankees, affectionately known as the Bronx Bombers. And now, it has a nifty namesake Broadway musical, carrying the title A Bronx Tale.
The show, a coming-of-age story told against a rough-and-tumble urban landscape, has landed on the Main Stem after its premiere early this year at the Paper Mill Playhouse in nearby Millburn, New Jersey.
It all started, however, with an autobiographical one-man play written and first performed Off-Broadway by Chazz Palminteri in 1989. A 1993 movie adaptation starred both Palminteri and Robert De Niro, who also directed, and in 2007-8 Palminteri performed the one-man show on stage in New York again, this time on Broadway.
The musical has the assurance of a well-tested product, transformed into musical terms by a knowing creative team. Movie great De Niro again has directing credit, sharing it with Broadway luminary Jerry Zaks.
The composer is Alan Menken, whose resumé includes a host of Disney classics, both film and stage, including Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Lyricist Glenn Slater is a frequent collaborator with Menken and has also worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber, most recently on School of Rock. Palminteri has written the book.
Taking place mainly in the 1960s, the tale’s central character and narrator is Calogero, the name reflecting his family’s Sicilian roots.
Played with verve and a gutsy smartness by Bobby Conte Thornton, he makes an agreeable companion as he takes us through his story.
We see how as a boy, he witnesses Sonny, the top gangster of his neighbourhood, fatally shoot a guy on the street. Calogero refuses to rat on Sonny, who in appreciation takes the young fellow on as a protégé.
This hardly sits well with Calogero’s father, Lorenzo, an upstanding and hard-working bus driver, who wants his son to follow the straight and narrow.
These conflicting influences become more complicated as Calogero grows into young manhood and becomes involved with an African-American girl from the neighbouring black neighbourhood, a romance virtually prohibited in that time and environment.
Eventually, Calogero is able to take with him into adulthood the best parts of these experiences.
The storytelling mixes well the gritty mean streets aura that helped make De Niro a star with the supercharged pacing that has been a Zaks trademark.
A main contribution as well is the energised choreography of Sergio Trujillo, giving a fresh feel to a lot of familiar dance moves from the period. It brings a welcome sense of fun to a story that veers into some dark areas. The violent death count by the final curtain almost rivals Hamlet.
But even in its darkest moments, A Bronx Tale never forgets that it’s a Broadway musical. In fact, the show at times seems to be an homage collection of memorable moments from other shows.
The Menken-Slater score, with its ingratiating doo-wop sound, is of course, a heavy reminder of Jersey Boys, brought instantly to mind with the first image we see: a quartet of guys harmonising under a street light. (Both Trujillo and music supervisor/arranger Ron Melrose are Jersey Boys veterans.)
Then narrator Calogero takes us on a tour of his vibrant Italian neighbourhood (well defined in Beowulf Boritt’s colourful scenic design and William Ivey Long’s period costumes). The number is ‘Belmont Avenue’, and it’s pleasantly reminiscent of the tour we take of the vibrant Latino neighbourhood at the start of In The Heights.
When Lorenzo talks to his son about baseball players as examples of winning at the game of life, it leads into a song entitled ‘Look to Your Heart’. The tempo is different, but it’s understandable if you’re suddenly thinking about ‘Heart’ from Damn Yankees.
Later, as Sonny – in the mounting excitement of a crap game number, ‘Roll ‘Em’ – teaches the young Calogero how to roll dice, it’s Guys and Dolls all over again.
As the African-American characters are introduced into the story, the music takes on a rhythm and blues colouring that might have you humming stuff from Motown the Musical.
And in the Act II, as young white hoodlums rev themselves up to attack the neighbouring blacks in a number called ‘Hurt Someone’, well, you guessed it. It’s West Side Story!
Nevertheless, A Bronx Tale is able to give these elements its own distinctive flavour, thanks in large part to a cast that is almost pitch-perfect.
Nick Cordero, who established his underworld credentials with his Tony-nominated turn in Bullets Over Broadway, is a terrific Sonny, a smooth, charismatic mobster with a heart, at least partially, of gold, despite his tendency to shoot people.
He even gets to show his tender side in a ballad, ‘One of the Great Ones’, recalling his lost loves. In the opposite corner in the battle over Calogero, Richard H. Blake’s Lorenzo easily gains a lot of our sympathy. As the girl who wins Calogero’s heart, Ariana DeBose exudes both vivacity and a sexy sweetness.
The miniature wonder of the cast is Hudson Loverro, playing the prepubescent Young Calogero. The fellow is an affecting actor and an absolutely irresistible song and dance man, and when he exits from the proceedings, he’s sorely missed. (The role at some performances is played by Athan Sporek.)
As Thornton takes over as the older Calogero, he’s almost – if not quite – convincing as a teenager, but it’s still a winning performance.
The show only falters toward the end, as it takes on a heavy-handed inspirational tone, reminding us almost endlessly in the closing anthem that “the choices you make will shape your life forever”.
Still, it all leaves you with a satisfied glow. A Bronx Tale proves to be a tale worth telling, as well as worth singing and dancing.
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