by JK Clarke
The timing couldn’t be better for the powers that be to release the musical version of the story of life growing up in the 1960s in New York City’s outer borough. America is presently awash in fetishization of nostalgia, and A Bronx Tale is a trip down memory lane if ever there was one. And like that other great story from the Bronx (the Yankees, for those who aren’t sports fans), this production has a Murderer’s Row of big hitters (and Tony and Academy Award Winners) behind it: direction by Robert DeNiro and Jerry Zaks; Alan Menken does the music, with Glenn Slater’s lyrics; costumes by William Ivey Long; the choreography is Sergio Trujillo’s; set by Beowulf Boritt; and the book is by Chazz Palminteri, who wrote the original play as well as the 1993 film version (which also starred and was directed by DeNiro). With a lineup like that, not to mention a strong set of supporting players and cast, it’s hard to go wrong. And like Joe DiMaggio’s record breaking hitting streak, this Tale keeps on winning.
If you’ve seen the movie you know the story: narrated by a grown up Calogero (Bobby Conte Thornton)—it’s the loosely autobiographical story of Palminteri’s (Calogero is, in fact, his given name) life growing up in the Italian enclave of Belmont Avenue. At nine years old, Calogero witnesses the local mafia boss, Sonny (charming and suave Nick Cordero) murder a man in a beef over a parking space. When the police ask the young boy to identify the killer, he chooses not to snitch and is taken on, in appreciation, as a young mascot by Sonny, much to his father Lorenzo’s (Richard H. Blake) consternation. The first act, set in 1960, is hallmarked by delightful performances by a young Calogero (who’s supposed to be, and looks, nine years old), played with energetic spunkiness by Hudson Rovero who has strong young pipes (shown off in “I Like It”) and capable dance moves. He, along with his older self (Thornton), introduce us to a neighborhood awash in stereotypes, from the very amusing, pompadour-sporting barman, Rudy the Voice (Joey Sorge) who sings his every word, much to Sonny’s consternation; to the corpulent JoJo the Whale (Michael Barra) who’s never without a snack. The establishment of these comfortable neighborhood norms, no matter how dysfunctional, is a setup for the schism to come.
The disruption arrives in the second act when a high school-aged Calogero (“C”), now a respected neighborhood boy, flush with cash earned through working with Sonny, falls in love with a black girl from another stereotype-anchored neighborhood, Webster Avenue. Jane (the talented Ariana DeBose) is even more aware than C of the danger their romance presents, but neither can resist. What’s more, this is now 1968 and racial tensions are at an all time high. It’s only a matter of time before C’s world both implodes and explodes. Even so, he can only look back on the era in fondness.
A Bronx Tale does exactly what it sets out to do: paint a loving picture of a bygone era with bittersweet hues, despite the sturm und drang of the times. Boritt’s landscape of fire escape-latticed brick buildings (that shift smoothly and artfully through different neighborhood changes); Palminteri’s pastiche of seemingly outsized characters, which anyone who witnessed the era would tell you are, amazingly, completely accurate; and catchy numbers which evolve with the times (like the pretty R&B Jade/Calogero duet “In a World Like This”), combine to make A Bronx Tale an immersive, realistic trip down memory lane. It’s a perfect way for those who were there to relive the past and, at the same time, introduce it to younger generations who weren’t.
A Bronx Tale. Now playing at the Longacre Theatre (220 West 48th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). www.ABronxTaletheMusical.com
Photos: Joan Marcus