BWW Review: Jerry Zaks/Robert De Niro Co-Direct Paper Mill's Promising A BRONX TALE Musical

If Frank Sinatra were still around, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater would have a hell of a single for him to record.

Nick Cordero and Jason Gotay
(Photo: Matt Murphy)

It comes in the second act of their new musical based on Chazz Palminteri's autobiographical solo play, A BRONX TALE. Titled "One of the Great Ones" it's a sentimental tough-guy swing about the three chances in every man's life to find the perfect woman. Sung by the charismatic father-figure 1960s Italian mobster, Sonny, the role Palminteri played in the movie version, it has a warm melody that glides softly into the ear, enhanced by plainspoken poetry that's muscular, but sincere.

Palminteri, who wrote the musical's book, supplies a gem of a monologue in the middle and Nick Cordero, a Tony-nominee for playing another musical tough-guy mobster in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, delivers a perfect portrayal of a man who trusts no one in a rare moment of revealing his heart.

It's a great musical theatre moment in Paper Mill's premiere production of a frequently captivating musical with a lot of promise.

Set on Belmont Avenue, in the Italian section of the Bronx, the story begins in 1960, when young Calogero witnesses Sonny committing a murder, but follows the code of the neighborhood and doesn't rat him out to the police. Sonny takes the boy under his wing, teaches him how to gamble and soon everyone on the block knows not to mess with the mob boss' protégé.

Calogero's hard-working dad, Lorenzo, a bus driver who gave up his dream of being a musician when his son was unexpectedly conceived, tries to protect his boy, but the kid is seduced by the money and power he can claim with Sonny. Years go by and Calogero grows into a young man with trouble-making friends his own age and the solid first act ends with tensions growing as Lorenzo desperately fights to keep Sonny's influence from ruining his boy's life.

A BRONX TALE starts faltering in the second act when racial tensions, lightly touched upon in the first half, bubble to the surface. Calogero's mutual attraction with a black girl, Jane, triggers off some violent episodes between the younger characters. Sonny and Lorenzo's contrasting opinions about the young man's budding romance add an interesting twist, but the new plot developments seem rushed, underwritten and too much of a departure from what was cooking in act one.

Still, A BRONX TALE has got some terrific elements; especially the catchy score that defines characters through doo-wop, vintage American rock, girl group harmonies, early funk and saloon crooning.

Jason Gotay and Company (Photo: Matt Murphy)

As Young Calogero, Joshua Colley has a great belt in his little body and brings down the house with a big number celebrating his neighborhood celebrity. As the central character's older self, Jason Gotay does a fine job narrating the evening and getting across the awkwardness of Calogero's troubled growth into manhood.

Richard H. Blake's also does fine work as the sincere and honest Lorenzo, but the character disappears for much of act two. The underwritten female characters come off as too peripheral, with musical moments for Coco Jones, as Jane, and Lucia Giannetta, as Calogero's mother, seeming perfunctory.

The night belongs to Cordero, whose slick and polished Sonny is darkly funny, but always a threat.

The evening is handsomely co-directed by Robert De Niro, who directed the film while playing Lorenzo, and Jerry Zaks, who helmed Palminteri's 2007 Broadway solo engagement. One imagines Zak took care of the healthy pacing and effective sight gags and romantic visuals, while De Niro kept the acting authentic. While the show doesn't feature any big dance moments, Sergio Trujillo's choreography is classically vintage.

Fix up the story-telling and A BRONX TALE will look like a winner. It's more than halfway there.

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From This Author Michael Dale