The characters are simple, the storytelling is derivative of better-known musicals ("West Side Story," "Jersey Boys") and the tone is excessively sentimental and solemn. But "A Bronx Tale," the new Broadway musical based upon actor-writer Chazz Palminteri's coming of age in an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx of the 1960s, is nevertheless an entertaining crowd-pleaser and a poignant piece of theater. If it works, it works.
A BRONX TALE: THE MUSICAL Broadway Reviews
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Sometimes plain old pasta with red sauce is just what the doctor ordered. "A Bronx Tale," which opened at the Longacre Theater on Broadway on Thursday, might be called the musical-theater equivalent of that classic comfort food. It doesn't break ground or dazzle with an unusual recipe - like, say, mixing rap and American history - but it delivers reliable pleasures with polished professionalism and infectious energy.
The truth, of course, is they are in the long-lived world of 45th Street, as massaged by skilled practitioners of the sentimental form. "A Bronx Tale" is a wildly uneven show - some parts feel just ridiculous in the broadness of their strokes, others entirely charming. The greatest strength of the piece lies in its characterization of Sonny - a far more benign mob boss than we are used to seeing. If Tony Soprano was neuroses and paradox writ large, Sonny, like this show, is a thinly veiled but incurable romantic, always comfortable in his own skin.
For this Broadway production first seen earlier this year at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, the co-directors are DeNiro and Jerry Zaks (who staged the original solo version), with Palminteri as the book writer. Despite its by-now overfamiliarity, the piece achieves a new freshness in this entertaining musicalization, featuring a tuneful score by two Disney veterans - eight-time Oscar-winner Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) and Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid, Tangled), whose previous collaborations include the screen-to-stage musicals Sister Act and Leap of Faith
Menken and Ashman, who reached their greatest heights scoring animated Disney classics such as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, generally worked in milieus more welcoming of tenderness and whimsy than Palminteri's is here. The streets revisited in this new production are paved with a heavy-handed and, in musical-theater terms, restrictive earnestness. There is humor (much of it mobster-related, mined deftly by Zaks and DeNiro), and parental love, and a bit of romance; what's missing is the even more essential element of joy.
Cordero is good and sleazy enough so that we never miss the original too much. He lacks Palminteri's heavy elegance, but his is an understated performance that gives the musical a solid foundation. Also very fine is the delectable Ariana Debose, who plays the love interest, and a gifted child actor named Hudson Loverro. The huge obstacle to overcome in putting "A Bronx Tale" on stage is finding the right kid for the early scenes. Problem solved: Loverro brings real street edge to the young Calogero, who prefers being feared, like Sonny, to being beloved, like his financially struggling father (Richard H. Blake).
"A Bronx Tale: The New Musical," Chazz Palminteri's semi-autobiographical theatrical coming-of-age story, has been told and retold so many times that it has the ritualized feel of a folk myth - and not in a good way.
A Bronx Tale is unlikely to work without a strong performance in the central role of the gangster Sonny. (Palminteri played all the roles in the one-man show; he was Sonny in the film version.) Fortunately, Nick Cordero carries the musical with aplomb. This is the actor who appeared out of nowhere in 2014 and practically nabbed a Tony in the Woody Allen-Susan Stroman Bullets on Broadway, as the bodyguard Cheech. (Not incidentally, this role was created in Allen's 1994 film version by: Chazz Palminteri.) Last season Cordero appeared as the villain-of-a-husband in Waitress, a role with which he could not do much. In Bronx Tale, Cordero is smooth as glass with a jagged edge, with charm to spare.
To the best of our knowledge, "A Bronx Tale," Chazz Palminteri's love letter to the wise guys and tough street kids from his old neighborhood has not been re-imagined as a ballet, but given the popularity of this vintage material, that might very well be in the works. After the 1989 solo show, the 1993 movie directed by Robert De Niro and the 2007 Broadwayproduction staged by Jerry Zaks, where else could this show go but back to Broadway as a musical starring Nick Cordero? Is it a good fit? Not really, but there's something nicely symmetrical about the material progress. Next up: surely an opera.
Everything unfolds with predictably smooth Times Square professionalism, and I can imagine the results appealing to fans of "Jersey Boys" (including the dances, which were choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, who worked on that show as well). But for all its slickness, "A Bronx Tale" is nothing more than a weightless comic-book adaptation of the movie on which it's based, stripped of the understated yet ever-present sense of threat that gave the film so much of its dramatic force. Here, by contrast, the audience laughs all night long, even at the serious parts-and the screen version of "A Bronx Tale," for all its unabashedly sentimental appeal to old-neighborhood nostalgia, was at bottom a deeply serious film. Not so the musical: Even when somebody gets killed, you wait for the punch line.
The main takeaway of the new Broadway musical "A Bronx Tale" is that talent is a terrible thing to waste. The show's makers and shapers, including Chazz Palminteri, who adapted his 1989 play, and Robert De Niro, who starred in and helmed the '93 film version and now shares directing credit with theater veteran Jerry Zaks, haven't squandered their gifts.
The musical is handsome and reasonably well performed, especially by Bobby Conte Thornton as Calogero and Nick Cordero as Sonny. And it still has, in précis, that timely and timeless set of concerns. In a corrupt society, is the working man "a sucker," as Sonny maintains? How do we make moral sense of the good qualities of bad people - and vice versa? That A Bronx Tale, as a musical, never answers these questions is fair enough; that it lacks the subtlety to raise them seriously is very nearly a crime.
Nostalgia, when used properly in a new musical, can feel like a warm hug and a slap in the face at the same time. It can simultaneously remind you the best things about a time period, while waking you up to how much the world has or hasn't changed since. Think "Hairspray," "The Color Purple" or even "Ragtime." But when done poorly, the trend can come off tired and cliché. Like a bad cover of a great song on a reality singing competition, it can feel like a watered-down version of what once was - and make you question the purpose of the story as a whole.
New York gangsters sing and dance successfully in "Guys and Dolls," and uptown street punks do the same in "West Side Story." "A Bronx Tale" recalls both if only to illuminate its comparative limitations. Palminteri's semi-autobiographical story at the heart of this show remains compelling, but "A Bronx Tale" is ultimately much better (and more inexpensively experienced) as a movie.
"A Bronx Tale," which opened on Thursday night at the Longacre Theatre, isn't a bad musical. It just doesn't seem a necessary one. The story, about a boy's coming of age in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx in the 1960s, has had a long, chameleon-like existence. Created by actor Chazz Palminteri as a one-man show, he performed it off-Broadway in 1989. It was turned into a film, starring Palminteri, in 1993, and then, in 2007, Palminteri brought the semiautobiographical solo production to Broadway.