Friday, December 9, 2016

114. Review: A BRONX TALE (seen December 8, 2016)

“All That Chazz”
Stars range from 5-1.
You won’t hear the name Chazz in A Bronx Tale; all the same, the central character, Calogero Lorenzo Anello, is based on the youth of writer-actor Chazz Palminteri, born Calogero Lorenzo Palminteri. In 1988, seeking to get his struggling acting career on track, he created a pasta fazool of a one-man play called A Bronx Tale, in which he played 35 characters. Its LA production was so successful it moved to New York in 1989, became a hit, and then was directed by Robert De Niro as a 1993 movie, in which Palminteri and De Niro costarred. In 2007, Palminteri revived the original on Broadway.

Nick Cordero, Hudson Loverro, and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Hudson Loverro, Richard H. Blake. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Rory Max Kaplan, Keith White, Dominic Nolfi, Joe Barbara, Hudson Loverro, Cary Tedder. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Now, with De Niro sharing staging honors with musical comedy maven Jerry Zaks, and with Palminteri writing the book, Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors) the music, and Glenn Slater (School of Rock) the lyrics, what began as a solo effort has been blown up (so to speak) into a 30-performer Broadway musical, which world premiered at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Much of it is raucously enjoyable—it received a sincere standing ovation—and the heart of Palminteri’s original remains intact, but its soul seems compromised by the window dressing of a big-budget production.
Bobby Conte Thornton. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This, you may recall, is the story—set in 1960 and 1968—of Calogero, son of a bus driver, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake, solid and big-voiced in the De Niro role), and homemaker Rosina (Lucia Gianetta, lovely but underused), growing up in the Belmont section of the Bronx, an Italian-American enclave bordering Belmont Avenue. Nearby, in their own ghetto, is the African-American community bounded by Webster Avenue. Racial tensions between the neighborhoods are high even though both send their kids to Roosevelt High School.
Bobby Conte Thornton, Luciana Gianetta. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The tale is narrated by the grown-up Calogero (long, lean Bobby Conte Thornton, making a strong Broadway debut), beginning when a shooting is witnessed by his nine-year-old self, played by the gifted Hudson Loverro. (Wait till you see him rock “I Like It” like a pint-sized Elvis.) The shooter is local mafioso Sonny (Nick Cordero, perfectly recreating another swaggering, Palminteri movie tough guy, as he did in the Broadway musical of Bullets over Broadway); when questioned by the cops, Calogero refuses to finger Sonny, his godlike idol.
Hudson Loverro, Richard H. Blake, Lucia Giannetta. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This endears him to the powerful hood, who takes him under his wing, and, in a world where every wiseguy has a nickname, dubs him “C.” The friendship precipitates a crucial conflict between C’s incorruptible, hardworking dad and the dangerous, racketeering Sonny over what’s best for Calogero, who’s torn between the values of the two men he loves most.
Nick Cordero, Richard H. Blake. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Eight years later, C (Thornton) is a high school punk, hanging out with his even punkier crew, when he falls for Jane (Ariana Debose, appealing), a beautiful black classmate. This opens the door for a look at the racially charged biases of both sides (very West Side Story), but especially at the brutally violent bigotry of C’s greaser friends. Sonny is still a potent force in C’s life, but C will learn even more life lessons when fate catches up with his charismatic mentor.
Richard H. Blake, Bobby Conte Thornton, Nick Cordero, and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There are thus two plots here: Act One: a tug of love with C being pulled in two directions between Lorenzo and Sonny. Act Two: racial conflict based on C’s love for Jane. Do they mesh? Just barely. Are there extraneous things? Yes. Like the unconvincing scene when bikers crash Sonny’s hangout. For all that, one leaves with a sense that what began as a one-man show has ballooned out of proportion to the material that inspired it.
Gilbert L. Bailey II, Bradley Gibson, Ariana DeBose, Trista Dollison, Christina Pitts. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Beowulf Borritt’s set, terrifically lit with reddish hues by Howell Binkley, consists mainly of towering units representing tenement segments, fire escapes, shopfronts, and all, that can be swiftly moved into differing arrangements. On it, De Niro and Zaks (the latter having directed the original’s 2007 revival) create a colorful world dominated by the usual suspects; their casting is spot on.

We meet mugs like JoJo the Whale (Michael Barra), all 400 pounds of him; Frankie Coffeecake (Ted Brunetti), named for his pockmarked face; and Tony-Ten-To-Two (Paul Salvatoriello), whose feet are always in that position. One of the best moments comes when C introduces these goombahs while lights flash and a shutter clicks as if they’re posing for mug shots.
Trista Dollison, Ariana DeBose, Christina Pitts. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Sergio Trujillo choreographs cool dance sequences but more would be welcome. William Ivey Long’s costumes aren’t always helpful, though; why, for example, is nice-girl, high-school-student Jane dressed in a hooker-like miniskirt and high heels when we meet her? The skirt, maybe. The heels?

Performed with pumped up gusto for a fast-moving two hours, only occasionally stopping to catch its breath, the show, with its saucy profanity and comical sexual allusions (“she likes the pepperoni so she ain’t fit for matrimony” goes one fellatio-related line), isn’t for audiences seeking Disney-type entertainment.
Bobby Conte Thornton, Nick Cordero. Photo: Joan Marcus.
About two-thirds of the easy-listening but generally uninspired score reflects the kind of music popular back in the day, mostly Doo-wop, R&B, Sinatraesque balladry, golden oldies Rock ‘n Roll, and Motown, but the rest resembles generic Broadway show tunes. The schmaltzy throwback, “Look to Your Heart,” sung by Lorenzo to Calogero, and reprised by Rosina, serves as a thematic throughline, while “Nicky Machiavelli,” advocating fear over love, has a different point of view.
Bobby Conte Thornton, Nick Cordero, and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.

As a postscript, it might be noted for those who believe in the theatre as an instructive force that, in 2005, Lillo Brancato, Jr., the actor who played the older Calogero in the film version, was involved in a Bronx burglary during which a police officer was killed. His accomplice was sentenced to life in prison and Brancato was sent away for ten years. Perhaps one day he’ll offer a Bronx tale of his own.


Longacre Theatre
220 W. 48th St., NYC
Open run