BWW Review: Pantages Has an Audience Grabber in A BRONX TALE
A Bronx Tale/book by Chazz Palminteri/music by Alan Menken/lyrics by Glenn Slater/directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks/choreographed by Sergio Trujillo/Hollywood Pantages Theatre/through November 25
Based on the 1993 hit film, the stage musical A Bronx Tale has two of the movie's stars collaborating behind the scenes ... with a book by Chazz Palminteri, who played Sonny on film and Robert De Niro directing with Jerry Zaks. De Niro played Lorenzo onscreen, Calogero's father. Like the film this show is an instant hit with audiences who savor and take to heart the Sicilian lifestyle. This well cast and well directed national tour plays the Hollywood Pantages through November 25.
Every street mafioso is overly violent, packing a gun as his mark of trade and equally shooting off his mouth in an attempt to make light of the violent behavior. The Bronx version of The Godfather, its pacing is quick, its storyline realistic though somewhat contrived and the characters boldly humorous and always likable. Though Sonny (Joe Barbara) is a hood, he is appealing. A young boy like Calogero (Frankie Leoni, sharing with Shane Pry) could easily look up to him out of love as well as fear. There's a little Jersey Boys, a little In the Heights and even West Side Story coming together to remind one that the Bronx is and always has been a community of people who live to fight for their principles...and... just fight
The time is the 1960s. The older Calogero (Joey Barreiro) tells his Bronx Tale that begins with him as a kid witnessing Sonny shoot and kill a man. When the police put Sonny in a lineup and ask Calogero to pick out the suspect, he looks long and hard at Sonny and says no... at first out of fear, but quickly coming to love and respect the man, who acts like a father to a son he never had. Their relationship is at the core of the show, with Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) struggling to keep his little boy away from Sonny, who will always veer from the path of righteousness. So a struggle develops between Calogero and his father and continues until Sonny dies. Calogero becomes a hood, leads his gang, but still hopes not to waste his talent, to become a decent human being and successful working man like his father. His life is a true mix of good and evil. When he meets a black girl Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell), he falls in love and greater hell breaks loose, as it turns into the blacks versus the mafiosos, a street war of guns, bombs and a pack of violence.
The storyline for me becomes a bit contrived and manipulative at this point. It's cluttered with gang violence and Sonny's mixed reaction to Calogero's decision to pursue Jane. He's obviouly against the blacks, yet encourages Calogero to go after her, if he is really and truly in love with her,.. for "she may be one of the great ones". Lorenzo also turns his back on his beliefs and stands behind his son's pursuit of love. Although the melting pot gangs clash in a believable manner, the story becomes ultra convoluted and takes the audience deeper into the cultural clutter. But that's life in the Bronx...and the audience eats it up.
The cast are all dynamite under the tough amd steady hands of De Niro and Zaks. Leoni is a standout as little Calogero. It's engaging to witness a boy's unsteady development, and Leoni captures to perfection the difficulty of loving two paternal figures. Barbara is just great as Sonny, tough and threatening yet leaving a darkly friendly impression. Blake does his best with a complex role, and Michelle Aravena has terrific moments as Calogero's mom, that is overall a thankless role. Bell is a sensational triple threat. She's sweet, and boy oh boy can she sing and dance, replicating Sergio Trujillo's thrilling steps to the letter.
A Bronx Tale nicely evokes the 60s with set designer Beowulf Boritt's dimly lit city skyline in the background. William Ivey Long's period costumes are right on target. Alan Menken and Glenn Slater's songs are pleasant to listen to and carry the message of the plot forward with strong repetition. Chazz Palminteri's book is surprisingly real in spite of a couple of contrivances, and it never sacrifices humor, always emanating from the bizarre collection of Italian characters.
This is certainly not my favorite musical, but I did come away more than satisfied with what I saw...always nice to see a different perspective of the 60s when I myself grew up. Go and enjoy A Bronx Tale through November 25 only!
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)