BWW Review: A BRONX TALE Gets A Warm Welcome At Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center
No doubt about it, A Bronx Tale - the musical version of Chazz Palminteri's original 1989 one man show (he played some 18 characters in the original work) that ultimately led to a 1993 film directed by Robert DeNiro - is one engaging night of theater, telling an intriguing story of a boy who grows to manhood on the mean streets of The Bronx, in the shadow of local wiseguy/mob kingpin Sonny, played here by Joe Barbara with chilling authenticity and palpable, if oily, charm.
Palminteri's book is almost certain to grab your attention, as skillfully as Sergio Trujillo's broad-shouldered, athletic choreography does, but the show's score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater seems far too literal a translation of the story, never quite achieving the same level of success needed for the show to fire on all cylinders. And that's unfortunate: Menken's music is derivative, while Slater's lyrics are heavy-handed and didactic.
Palminteri's semi-autobiographical work weaves a coming of age story into an allegory of wasted talent and love v. fear - themes that easily reverberate in the hearts and souls of every audience member, particularly those who've never really considered themselves fans of musical theater. With plenty of action, gunshots and testosterone, A Bronx Tale delivers the goods in a fast-paced, almost cinematic fashion (the show clocks in at just over two hours, including a 15-minute intermission) that makes it even more appealing to people who have a hard time identifying with characters who suddenly burst into song to express their emotions or to show off some incredibly fancy footwork to further interpret their feelings. But it's the Menken/Slater score that fails to carry its weight or to achieve any type of laudable theatrical status - there's not a single tune you'll likely remember once the final curtain falls on the production currently ensconced in Andrew Jackson Hall at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center through Sunday, February 17.
"Belmont Avenue," the opening number that instantly and skillfully transports audiences to the musical's time and place, shows much promise and as performed by the quartet of Christopher Messina, Joshua Michael Burrage, Giovanni DiGabriele and Alex Dorf, it's a delightful throwback to the music of the period, but subsequent numbers fall short of it, sounding like so many retreads of the tried and true tunes of the era instead of achieving any notoriety on their own.
Directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, A Bronx Tale features 11 of the Broadway production's cast members in a stylized setting of Belmont Avenue in the 1960s - credit goes to Beowulf Boritt for the eye-popping scenic design, Howell Binkley for the gorgeous lighting design and William Ivey Long for the spot-on costumes - complete with an original doo-wop score by Messrs. Menken and Slater that is appealing, if unremarkable to "flesh out," if you will, the sights, sounds and characters that make Palminteri's story so captivating and emotional.
The characters - even the ones who seem only to serve to perpetuate certain stereotypes - are colorful and interesting, to be certain, and the actors assigned the roles are charming and talented. As we become invested in the story of young Calogero (played with confident aplomb by Frankie Leoni on open night in Nashville), who witnesses a man gunned down on the street in the musical's early moments, we are quickly caught up in the machinations of the aforementioned who rules the neighborhood with beneficent fear.
By the time Calogero has had his Sicilian name shortened to "C" by Sonny and Joey Barreiro (who is known to local audiences for his performance in Studio Tenn's 2013 production of Into the Woods) has taken over the role, audiences are firmly entrenched in the tale and eager to see what lies ahead for the young man. Meanwhile, Lorenzo (the lad's dad) attempts to remain in control of his son's upbringing, arguing for the boy to remain on the straight and narrow before falling victim to the easier, if more dangerous and more lucrative, life promised by Sonny.
Barreiro, who joined the show for the national tour, is terrific in the role of Calogero and he anchors the cast with his focused performance, providing much of the show's heart with his skillful portrayal of the young man torn between loyalty to his father and the man who teaches him the necessary street smarts needed to make a successful life in the neighborhood. When C meets an intelligent and attractive young African-American woman, with whom he is instantly smitten in the way musical theater romances tend to evolve, things become infinitely more complicated for him. Brianna-Marie Bell's impeccable soprano make her musical moments more special, of course, and her onstage relationship with Barreiro adds another layer to the already compelling story.
Richard H. Blake, who played the role of Lorenzo in the Broadway production, is a welcome part of the national tour's cast, lending his gorgeous voice and estimable stage presence to ensure the show's appeal. Michelle Avarena is quite good as Calogero's mother Rosina and her chemistry with Blake ensure their book scenes are vividly portrayed.
With supporting characters named Rudy the Voice, Eddie Mush, Jojo the Whale, Frankie Coffeecake, Tony 10 to 2, Sally Slick, Handsome Nick and Crazy Mario, Palminteri's colorful story becomes even more complex and intriguing and thanks to the commitment of the actors playing those roles (John Gardiner, Mike Backes, Michael Barra, Robert Pieranunzi, Paul Salvatoriella, Christopher Messina, Giovanni DiGabriele and Alex Dorf, respectively) the characters transcend stereotype to add depth and perspective to the proceedings.
There are moments in A Bronx Tale that Zaks' hand in the direction of the musical seems to present itself more definitively - the scene in which Sonny and his gang are shooting craps in the basement of Chez Bippy, for example, cannot help but be compared to Zaks' staging of a similar scene in Guys and Dolls - and Trujillo's acrobatic choreography provides much of the show's boundless energy, particularly in the early going.
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. Music supervision and arrangements by Ron Melrose. The national touring company at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall, Nashville. Through February 17. For details, go to www.TPAC.org. Running time: 2 hours (with one 15-minute intermission).
photos by Joan Marcus