Review: ‘A Bronx Tale’ at the National Theatre

Chazz Palminteri is one cool dude. Imagine having your own life story play to sold-out houses on and off Broadway, and be made into a classic film directed by none other than Robert De Niro. And De Niro wants to play your daddy! Now, your life story, A Bronx Tale, is onstage at the National Theatre, the oldest touring theater in the country. That’s pretty cool.

Joe Barbara (Sonny) and Joey Barreiro (Calogero) with the touring company of A Bronx Tale. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Joe Barbara (Sonny) and Joey Barreiro (Calogero) with the touring company of ‘A Bronx Tale.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

The way Palminteri came to write the book for what began as a semi-autobiographical one-man show in Los Angeles in 1989 reminded me of Tyler Perry, who created the Madea character when he was homeless and living out of his car but is now a media mogul. Chazz was down to his last $200, after being fired from his job as a nightclub bouncer when he was offered a million dollars to turn over the rights to his one-man show. He turned it down because he knew he had something lasting to tell a larger audience. And the rest is history.

A Bronx Tale, now playing at the National Theatre, is a delightful, high-energy musical of fast-paced fun set in the late 1960s. It debuted on Broadway in 2016. Under the co-direction of Jerry Zaks and Robert De Niro (who directed the film version), A Bronx Tale hits all the right notes and a lot more with an inspirational story, great singing and exuberant dancing. The touring cast includes eleven of the original actors from the award-winning Broadway hit.

The mean streets of the Bronx come alive under the street lights at the corners of Belmont Avenue and Webster Avenue, the dividing line between the Italian neighborhood where Chazz Palminteri grew up and the black inner city. Beowulf Boritt’s moving scenic design deftly shifts between the stoop, the Italian grocery store, pizza joint and Chez Bippy, the Italian hangout, to the black side of town.

A Bronx Tale tells the story of Calogero, a poor young Italian boy coming of age as he learns some hard life lessons from Sonny, the wealthy neighborhood don who takes him under his wing for not ratting when he witnesses Sonny murder a man. But Sonny’s mobster philosophies about life don’t quite match with Lorenzo, Calogero’s hardworking bus driver father. Conflict ensues when Calogero comes to terms with what living a life of integrity really means. He struggles to know whether it is better to be feared than to be loved and he almost loses his life in the battle.

Forbidden young love between Calogero and Jane, a beautiful black girl from the other side of town, sparks more flames of conflict and takes on a racially-tinged Romeo and Juliet tone when a fight breaks out between Calogero’s Italian street punk buddies and Jane’s brother and the boys in the hood get beaten up.

Brianna-Marie Bell (Jane) and Joey Barreiro (Calogero) in A Bronx Tale. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Brianna-Marie Bell (Jane) and Joey Barreiro (Calogero) in ‘A Bronx Tale.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

Peppy Doo-Wop tunes touch your heartstrings as 19 songs such as “Look to Your Heart,” “Giving Back the Money,” “These Streets,” “One of the Great Ones,” “In a World Like This,” and “The Choices We Make” kick the production into high gear with a live 8-piece orchestra conducted by Brian P. Kennedy (music by Alan Mencken and lyrics by Glenn Slater).

Joey Calaveri played Sonny with the slickness of a Marlon Brando mob boss. In his “Nicky Machiavelli” number he shares Sonny’s skewed view of the world, with Frank Sinatra-like smoothness, with an admiring young Calogero.

Although Joey Barreiro was not in the Broadway production, he takes on the role of a central character in the touring company, the 17-year-old Calogero. Completely comfortable in his own skin and as cool as Chazz Palminteri himself with a great voice to boot, Barreiro narrates the entire story of his growing up in the Bronx with finesse.

Robert H. Blake as Lorenzo continues in his Broadway role as Calogero’s bus-driving father. He nails the role, with a fine voice and his portrayal as a man of great dignity who would rather work for a living than enrich himself with a bribe. His “Giving Back the Money” song was a showstopper.

Frankie Leoni (Young Calogero) and Richard H. Blake (Lorenzo) in A Bronx Tale. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Frankie Leoni (Young Calogero) and Richard H. Blake (Lorenzo) in A Bronx Tale. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The young Calogero, played like a little pro by young Frankie Leoni who is nine years old in the story, also continues the role he portrayed on Broadway. Leoni is spunky and fearless but easily influenced by the powerful presence of Sonny.

As Rose, the loving Italian Mama, Michelle Aravena’s strong vocals anchor her character as a stabilizing presence in Calogero’s turbulent young life. Aravena was part of the Broadway cast.

Brianna-Marie Bell is an innocent but confident Jane who sings a sweet soprano as she dares to defy the taboo of interracial love in Calogero’s embrace. Their lovely duet with stars shining in the night-lit skies created by Howell Binkley’s delicate lighting design makes you believe that love conquers all as they look into each other’s eyes singing “In a World Like This.”

In his national tour debut, Antonio Beverly gives a fine performance with tight dance moves and an emotionally riveting characterization as Jane’s aggrieved brother Tyrone.

A terrific ensemble of 15 completes a big cast of performers who are completely in sync with each other and professionally polished. Sergio Trujillo’s vivacious choreography mimicked Chuck Berry’s duck walk energy, Step Afrika’s slapdash foot stomping,  and George Chakiris’ street-smart cool from West Side Story.

The 1993 film of A Bronx Tale, which marked Robert De Niro’s film directorial debut, contained 40 of the best R&B, pop, rock, and blues and jazz tunes from the ’60s. If there was one thing that would have anchored A Bronx Tale to the mood and the feeling of the times it would have been to hear some of that great music. There’s nothing like musical legends such as James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Four Tops, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Young Rascals, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra or the strains of John Coltrane to emotionally attach you to the authenticity of the ’60s.

(foreground, l to r) Haley Hannah, Joseph Sammour, Joshua Michael Burrage, Giovanni DiGabriele, Sean Bell, Kyli Rae. (background, l to r) Robert Pieranunzi, Michael Barra, Paul Salvatoriello and Mike Backes. Photo by Joan Marcus.
(foreground, l to r) Haley Hannah, Joseph Sammour, Joshua Michael Burrage, Giovanni DiGabriele, Sean Bell, Kyli Rae. (background, l to r) Robert Pieranunzi, Michael Barra, Paul Salvatoriello and Mike Backes. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Alan Mencken’s fine Broadway score fit the musical genre with its Doo Wop grace notes, but the film version uniquely enlivened the story with the pulse of the actual music from those times.

There was a special treat on press night. Chazz Palminteri was in the house and he graced the stage with his presence before a standing ovation. He gave an inspirational message to the young folks that was emblematic of his life story, telling them, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”

There was certainly no wasted talent in this entertaining and uplifting production. With a top-notch cast and first-rate staging, the touring company of A Bronx Tale is Broadway at its finest right here in the DMV. Be sure to see it during the one-week run at the National Theatre. A Bronx Tale is too good to be missed.

Running Time: Two hours plus one 15-minute intermission.

A Bronx Tale plays through March 31, 2019, at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call 800-514-3849 or go online.