Chazz Palminteri’s career as actor and writer was given a big boost when his one-man play A Bronx Tale began its life off Broadway with the author as its star. The material was honed from his early life growing up in the Bronx, and though this work has been seen as a monolog, as a play off/Broadway, and again in 1989 at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway in 1993, it has finally landed as the source for the current musical at the Longacre Theatre, where it now boasts Mr. Palminteri as author of the book, with Alan Menken and Glenn Slater as composer and lyricist. Jerry Zaks has joined with Robert DeNiro to stage the musical with an assist from Choreographer Sergio Trujillo (On Your Feet!). The central role is now played by Bobby Conte Thornton, making a major Broadway debut (just as Mr. Palminteri did in the one-man version and the film). Nick Cordero, who returns to the stage after leaving the current hit Waitress and winning Outer Critics Circle and Theatre World awards for his work in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway provides brilliant support as Sonny, the neighborhood bully. Clearly Mr. Palminteri’s biographical play has served him well, and now his good fortune is being spread to a marvelous group of featured actors and a gifted ensemble.
It’s a dark tale, at first glance seemingly hardly the stuff on which to base a Broadway musical. But every choice in fashioning it into a very good musical has been the right one. Jerry Zaks, who’s been away from Broadway for a while, returns with all of his many talents for staging visible on stage from the start. The show moves effortlessly all through the Bronx of 1960 and 1968 with the able assistance of designers Beowolf Boritt (scenery), William Ivey Long (costumes) and Howell Binkley (lighting). The backdrops are stunning, and all the helpful props and furniture glide and slide quietly and effectively to plant us firmly in the Bronx of the Beatles’ 1960s.
With seeming ease Mr. Palminteri’s book deals with warring communities co-inhabiting the Belmont Avenue neighborhood as young Cologero (later called “C”) must choose a path close to that modeled by his father, or one that involves loyalty and commitment to the local mob boss (“Sonny”). To further complicate his life, he becomes involved with an interracial and forbidden romance. The conflicts are the building blocks that make this a solid story, told without compromise, a first-rate drama.
Matching the eloquence of the book, Alan Menken and Glenn Slater have delivered a score that evokes the musically free wheeling 60s, giving all of the principal characters material that not only moves the story forward, but helps clarify the complexities in each one of them. Bobby Conte Thornton plays the adult Calogero, serving first as narrator, then as participant in the suspenseful battle for his soul. Nick Cordero, whose performance in a similar role in Woody Allen and Susan Strohman’s Bullets Over Broadway earned him Outer Critics Circle and Theatre World awards, is giving a galvanizing performance as Sonny. He brings great strength as well as humor when he chooses to reveal that he can relate to others, often with humor, when he is not threatened.
The score has great variety; it’s often clever in the great tradition of the Golden Age composer-lyricists, ranging from the wacky “Nicky Machiavelli” to the gentle “Look To Your Heart.” Sonny’s “One of the Great Ones” is useful in showing his tender side. Another remarkable child actor called Hudson Laverro joins the growing list of youngsters who have been brightening Broadway by giving us a young Calogero who lands solidly in the early part of the evening before he matures into Bobby Thornton’s version of the same character Ariana DeBose is the ideal other half of the romance with Calogero, a beautiful leading lady who can sing well, act with conviction, and dance up a storm. Ms. DeBose is a major asset to this excellent company. Lucia Giannetta, Bradley Gibson and Richard H. Blake complete the list of principals that give credit to the Tara Rubin Casting organization which has put together a company of varied backgrounds that make this world of two elements of the Bronx come vividly alive.
The combination of Robert DeNiro and Jerry Zaks as Directors seems odd, but it works beautifully. There is no way of knowing who did what, but as DeNiro directed and co-starred in the film 23 years ago, and was helpful in getting the film made, I imagine Mr. Palminteri, who protected the film rights so tightly that he turned down an offer of $1,000,000 because it did not guarantee his writing the screenplay or playing the role of Sonny. DeNiro made the deal happen with its author’s terms intact, and though we rarely see billing as co-directors, particularly when a third party is hired to choreograph (one other trifecta that worked was the co-direction of Jerome Robbins and George Abbott and choreography of Bob Fosse on The Pajama Game.) In this case, the diversity of styles among the three stagers was clear enough to bring us a very tasty dish for all of us to relish.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.
A Bronx Tale is playing at The Longacre Theatre -Longacre Theatre – 220 West 48th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue), in New York City. For tickets, go to the box office, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.