Beware the show that questions too plainly your grasp of the obvious. “This is a Bronx tale,” a young man sings at the beginning of A Bronx Tale, based on Chazz Palminteri’s semiautobiographical one-man play that inspired the Robert De Niro-directed 1993 film adaptation.
On screen, as many will remember, Palminteri played Sonny, an Italian-American alpha gangster who bonds with a neighborhood boy; DeNiro was cast as Lorenzo, the boy’s upright, concerned father. Even skeptics of Broadway’s movie-to-musical pipeline might concede the clash between these very different paternal figures — coupled with an interracial love story that develops as the kid, Calogero, grows up and falls for a lovely, black classmate — seems ripe for the heightened emotional expression offered by song and dance.
Music also played a key role in the film, with DeNiro (influenced by buddy Martin Scorcese, no doubt) cannily using classic R&B and rock recordings to follow characters from the dawn of the 1960s to the counterculture movement later in the decade. For the musical, which opened Dec. 1 at New York’s Longacre Theatre, Palminteri, who wrote the libretto, and DeNiro, who co-directs with Broadway vet Jerry Zaks, have teamed with composer Alan Menken, who needed no schooling in that era: Menken’s breakthrough hit, with the late, great lyricist Howard Ashman, was the doo-wop-saturated Little Shop of Horrors.
But 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.
Hudson Loverro, the effusive boy soprano who plays Calogero at nine years old, provides the closest thing this Bronx Tale has to a sense of wonder, and his job is basically done about halfway through Act One. We then meet his character as a thoughtful, ambitious 17-year-old (played by the lissome, likable Bobby Conte Thornton), still drawn to the glamour and bravado of Sonny’s mob life but torn by a softer yearning, for Jane, that African-American beauty from the wrong side of town.
Sonny, portrayed here by Nick Cordero — primed by his performance two years ago as the hit man Cheech, another role famously introduced by Palminteri, in a musical adaptation of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway — reacts to Calogero’s conundrum in a way that might surprise those unfamiliar with previous incarnations of Bronx Tale, adding a shade of moral complexity. But Palminteri’s book doesn’t dig into Sonny’s contradictions, or anyone else’s, and those who did catch the movie will anticipate the most clever and charming lines coming a mile away.
Lyricist Glenn Slater, Menken’s frequent collaborator since Ashman’s death in 1991, thus has little to work with, and the results can veer perilously close to greeting-card hokum — as when Calogero sings, in the bombastic finale, “All the choices we make/Will shape our lives forever…Ev’ry moment counts.” And Menken’s tunes don’t seduce as nimbly on a first listen as his best have. The doo-wop harmonies are potently sung, though, and the songs arranged to evoke the theatrically rich wall-of-sound production pioneered around the time the action in Bronx Tale begins. While there’s little acknowledgment of how rock & roll evolved as the story progresses, R&B and jazz textures reinforce the cultural and generational divides represented here. (We’re reminded that Sinatra was still going strong during that period, certainly in Sonny’s circles.)
Standouts in the supple cast include Richard J. Blake, a robustly decent Lorenzo, and the piquant-voiced Ariana DeBose, a giddy but grounded Jane. But the production’s most valuable player is choreographer Sergio Trujillo, whose exuberant, athletic routines restore a sense of buoyancy at several key points.
“This is the kind of tale/That makes you laugh and cry,” Jane sings towards the end. Well, yes, that’s the goal. Chances are this Bronx Tale won’t move you to tears, but Trujillo ensures that it will at least move you a little. B-