BWW Review: A BRONX TALE at the National Theatre is Disappointingly Disjointed
The first words sung in A Bronx Tale, the tonally uneven and musically disappointing touring show that opened at D.C.'s National Theatre on Tuesday, are literally "this is a Bronx tale." The artistic subtleties don't get much better from there, as the musical (based on a movie based on a one-man show) proceeds to tackle issues from morality to racism with all the delicateness of a mobster smashing someone's head in with a baseball bat. Everything about this production is underwhelming from the performances to the design to the direction and choreography. Ultimately, A Bronx Tale is the perfect example of why we should stop adapting movies into musicals.
Calogero (Joey Barreiro) is a nine-year-old boy (Frankie Leoni as young Calogero) living in, you guessed it, the Bronx. One day, he sees the neighborhood mob boss, Sonny (Joey Calveri), shoot a man in the streets. When Calogero demonstrates his loyalty to Sonny by claiming to the police that he saw nothing, the young lad is taken under the mobster's wing. When in high school, the now-teenage Calogero begins to develop affections for his classmate, Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell). Their 1968 romance is complicated, however, by the fact that Jane is black. Calogero is determined that Jane is destined to be "one of the great ones" (an uninspired line from an equally uninspired song) of his love life and casts aside his friends to be together with Jane. He makes a good choice considering his friends blow themselves up when en route to throw molotov cocktails in Jane's neighborhood. In the end, Calogero leaves the Bronx and almost all of the events preceding this moment become nothing more than a memory, making the few stakes established throughout the show even more questionable.
Unless you are particularly familiar with Chazz Palminteri (who's life on which the show is based) you'll likely be confused as the show trucks from plot point to plot point without any clear link between ideas. Characters are introduced multiple times over as Mr. Palminteri's book meanders through his early years, leaving Mr. Barreiro to narrate over half of the musical's first act while Mr. Leoni takes center stage. Given the show includes a narrator, it's shocking that the plot moves so slowly, as simple conflicts like those between Calogero and his father, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake), are repeated in multiple scenes. Slow as it is, however, the show simultaneously moves too fast as no transition time exists between song and plot. The most egregious example is when Calogero and Jane finish their love song, "In a World Like This," before Calogero declares something to the effect of "my friends are on their way to throw molotov cocktails at your brother's bar!" Rarely has there been a less graceful transition.
Alan Menken, the treasured composer who provided tunes for Aladdin, Little Shop of Horrors, Sister Act and more, seems to have been interested solely in a paycheck for this project. All of the numbers sound vaguely the same. This sense of deja vu isn't helped by subpar lyrics provided by Glenn Slater which include a spectacularly awful mixed-metaphor in "do you fly off the rails with the wind in your sails" among other hard-to-swallow lines. It's a wonder any of the company members are able to spit out these lines without immediately bursting into laughter.
Unfortunately, the company in question isn't able to elevate any of this disappointing material. As Calogero, Mr. Barreiro is emotionally inconsistent, often smiling through scenes where a smile seems woefully out-of-place and struggling to generate much chemistry with his co-stars. Mr. Calveri proves that understudies (Sonny is billed to be played by Joe Barbara) can typically be the highlight of a performance. Sonny is a terribly clichéd "wise old man" archetype with lines and lyrics to match but Mr. Calveri gets closer than any of his compatriots to actually making any of the content convincing. Mostly, it feels like the cast is all trying to perform solo versions of the same show.
Ms. Bell proves to be one of the weakest links of the evening, with a vocal quality that constantly sounds like she is overly straining, constantly under-pitch, or both. Several of her moments, particularly during an a cappella section of the act two opener "Webster Avenue," are absolutely beautiful. But once additional vocalists or accompaniments are added, the consistency becomes questionable. It's hard to fault her too much, however, considering her role is written frustratingly two-dimensional. In fact, if you are a woman in A Bronx Tale, don't hold your breath for any sort of emotional depth to your role. You'll end up suffocating.
As Young Calogero, Mr. Leoni proves a solid emotional core to this production. His role is very demanding, but the young actor is up to the challenge and executes all of his moves well while continuing to belt out his numbers skillfully. While his performance is noteworthy, it is a little disappointing for a child actor to be the highlight of a company. Unless, of course, you're talking about a production of Billy Elliot or Annie.
Robert DeNiro has a lot of talents which he could justifiably brag about. Directing is not one of those talents if A Bronx Tale is to serve as the leading piece of evidence. Even Jerry Zaks's co-direction is unable to breathe any life into the aimless action taking place during the evening. Accompanied by choreography by Sergio Trujillo, which feels similar to that of a mid-level show choir, the performance takes on an amateurish quality at times. Every scene feels the same with very little new blocking to vary up the action.
Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed my time at A Bronx Tale. It's a completely ridiculous show that continues to baffle even after I've left the theater and discussing the show is a fun activity in itself. The biggest problem, however, is that many moments that were clearly designed to be emotionally resonant ended up coming off comical. If you're a fan of musicals, you'll likely be disappointed by the shallow nature and half-baked ideas of this production. If you're not a fan of musicals, you might actually enjoy this show. After all, there's very little about A Bronx Tale that feels worthy of being called a musical.
A Bronx Tale is playing through March 31 at Washington, D.C.'s National Theatre and runs approximately 2 hours with one intermission. For tickets and information, click here. For further information about the National's programming, click here.
Sam Abney is a Washington, D.C. based arts professional. A native of Arizona, he has happily made D.C. his new home. Sam is a graduate from George Mason University with a degree in Communication and currently works for Arena Stage as a member of their Development team. He is a life-long lover of theater and is excited about sharing his passion with as many people as possible.
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