This latest offering from Broadway in Chicago was 10 years in development. A Bronx Tale is based on a story that became a play and then a film, of the same name, by film actor Chazz Palminteri. The expanded musical version of a one-man show, with a book by Palminteri, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater, premiered at the Paper Mill Playhouse in February 2016. It eventually opened on Broadway later that same year, co-directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, and only closed last summer.
At a running time of only two hours, this semi-biographical musical tries to pack an awful lot into a short amount of time. The play is about growing up Italian on the streets of Bronx’s gritty Belmont Avenue, during the 1960’s. It heavily stresses the theme of using one’s heart over one’s head. It also feels like a strange mashup of several different, very familiar shows and is filled with cliches that don’t really say anything new.
The show opens with a smooth doo-wop ditty, sung under the streetlamp of the Bronx corner that lends its name to the song, “Belmont Avenue.” For musical theatre fans, this opening number strongly reminds us of “Jersey Boys.” Then we meet Calogero (the real first name of actor Palminteri) as he narrates the story of how, as an impressionable nine-year-old boy, he witnessed a street shooting. Because he intuitively understood and respected the influence wielded by Sonny, the powerful mob boss who ruled the Bronx, Calogero covers for him. Sonny rewards the boy and Calogero becomes Sonny’s favorite for the rest of his life. Through song, he teaches the kid all kinds of lessons. He shows him how to shoot craps, “Roll ‘Em.” He advises Calogero, whom he nicknames C, how to recognize that special girlfriend, “One of the Great Ones.” Much to the disapproval of Calogero’s working class parents, Sonny has bequeathed the boy a huge sum of cash, which they make him return in “Giving Back the Money.” Lorenzo, Calogero’s loving father, worries about his son’s allegiance to Sonny, fearing he’ll confuse fear for love and kindness for weakness.
Here the show becomes a mishmash of styles and stories. It overflows with New Yorkisms, like Yankee worship. It’s peppered with ethnic and racial slurs, while introducing us to quirky guys with funny nicknames. There’s a smattering of humor, lots of violence and a little anguish and remorse. It offers elements from Ragtime, in dealing with the Italian immigrants. The musical becomes West Side Story when it focuses on Calogero and Jane’s inter-racial love interest. The show even brings the musical rock n roll stylings of Grease into the mix. Most everything in this show won’t feel new to any true musical theatre fan, but it’s all presented with undeniable charm and earnestness.
The male-dominated company is really quite strong. They all bring talent and skill to this show, especially the excellent dancing ensemble. The leading role is shared by Joey Barreiro, as the show’s narrator and older Calogero, while little Frankie Leoni confidently inhabits the nine-year-old version of the role that he played on Broadway. Both actors are superb as the heart of this story. Joe Barbara, reprises his role as Sonny from the Broadway production, playing the role as part thug and part father figure for Calogero. As Lorenzo, Calogero’s upright, bus-driving father, Richard H. Blake demonstrates the qualities that earned him a Tony nomination for playing the role on Broadway. Brianna-Marie Bell is sweet and appealing as Jane, and Michelle Aravena is very good, but almost wasted, in the thankless role of Rosina, Calogero’s supportive mother.
The musical is produced by a raft of Broadway talent. It’s nicely co-directed by De Niro and Zaks (Hello Dolly), while featuring some gravity-defying choreography by the incomparably gifted, award-winning Sergio Trujillo (On Your Feet, Memphis, Jersey Boys). Beowulf Boritt’s adaptable scenic design works well with Howell Binkley’s moody lighting; and William Ivey Long’s period costumes, along with fine hair and wig designs by Paul Huntley, are appropriate for the look and feel of the musical.
This is a musical that feels familiar and probably won’t change the world. Palminteri’s story, while interesting, resembles the plot of many well-known films, like Goodfellas and Wise Guys. The show also seems to cobble together certain elements from other well-known musicals. The show is entertaining, particularly due to Trujillo’s exciting choreography. It offers some pleasant songs by Menken and Slater. However, while strangely lacking very much heart, the musical tells a good story and manages to illustrate how the choices we make early in our lives affects everything that happens afterwards.
Broadway in Chicago presents “A Bronx Tale” through March 24 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.