REVIEW: ‘A Bronx Tale’ is Familiar and Sentimental, but Thoroughly Entertaining

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Joe Barbara as Sonny and Frankie Leoni as Young Calogero in “A Bronx Tale.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

“A Bronx Tale” may be set in the rough-and-rumble Bronx of the 1960s, but this autobiographical story by Chazz Palminteri adapted from his one-man show, though polished and thoroughly entertaining, and bustling with sentimentality.

This version of a “A Bronx Tale” now at the Peace Center is a high-profile affair with Hollywood A-Lister Robert De Niro as co-director (he made his directorial debut with the 1983 film version), sharing the reigns with esteemed Tony winner Jerry Zaks, who helmed the Broadway play in 2007, in this circuitous journey from stage to screen and back to stage as a musical.

The production is sharp with lot of moving parts from Beowulf’s Boritt’s multitude of three-story fire escape and bodega fly-ins to painted backdrops of period brick apartment buildings, that when illuminated by Howell Binkley’s crimson lighting palette,  gives the illusion of a film negative. A moment in time. A distant memory.

And it’s Palminteri’s memories (loosely recollected) in the form of Calogero, played by a charmer Joey Barreiro, as the affable but streetwise cocky Italian teen/adult. He recalls the day when he witnessed a murder by local mob boss Sonny, and his developmental years under Sonny’s guidance and lure of easy money, as opposed to the blue-collar struggle of an honest dollar espoused by his father.

The play also benefits tremendously from its cast that includes a number of hold-overs from the Broadway show: Joe Barbara is thrilling as the wisecracking wiseguy Sonny; Richard H. Blake gives a fluid, heart-rendering performance as his father, Lorenzo (a role he originated); a confident and spunky Frankie Leoni played on opening night the hearty youth role of Young Calogero; as well as several supporting and ensemble actors.

And the names of the Sonny’s associates (suited to their particular peculiarity) could be right out of a “Dick Tracy” comic: Frankie Coffeecake (his acne), Rudy the Voice, Tony 10 to 2 (don’t ask), Handsome Nick, Crazy Mario, Jojo the Whale, and Sally Slick.

Calogero also recounts his “love affair” with an African-American teenager, Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell), his association with a Italian teenage gang, and the brewing strife between the ethnically segregated neighborhoods in the Bronx, where a mere two blocks separate the Italian district from the African American neighborhood, or a rival gang’s territory.  

While she does have a whopping soul-splittin’ opening number, “Webster Avenue,” at the top of the second act, Ms. Bell’s Jane is merely a plot point, a blip, that gets dropped as soon as the climax crescendos. And she is supposed to be “one of the great ones.”

Billed as “Jersey Boys” meet “West Side Story,” I can definitively understand the comparison.  But “A Bronx Tale” lacks the pacing, musicality and familiar soundtrack of the former, and the vitality, romance, tragedy, or urgency of the latter. And while the coming-of-age story is an engaging and entertaining adventure, this tale feels familiar and becomes overly sentimental with the feeble social justice tangent.

Rightfully so, the script is heavily invested in the main trio of machismo male fully-rounded characters: the son and his two “fathers”. The few women that do appear in this show are merely window dressing.

The score by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast” and a sea of Disney musicals)  and his “The Little Mermaid” writing partner Glenn Slater, does little to further develop those romantic elements.

The music ranges from light boy-group pop (The Doo-Wop Guys are a slick harmonious vocal quartet that appears throughout the proceedings much like the street urchin trio in Menken’s pre-Disney “Little Shop of Horrors,” but they are not the Four Seasons and they are no Greek chorus) to novelty songs like “Nicky Machiavelli” to jazz, R&B and soul.

And there are some standouts: a solid Michelle Aravena as  Calogero’s mother Rosina; the opener “Belmont Avenue“ that really transports us to the streets of New York; the father-son duet “Look to Your Heart”; the lovebirds’ “Out of Your Head”, Tyrone (Antonio Beverly) and Jesse (Kirk Lydell on this evening) in their crowd-pleasing routine in their “Ain’t it the Truth” reprise.  and of course, Sonny’s “One of the Great Ones.”

 “A Bronx Tale” continues through Sunday, February 10 at the Peace Center, 300 South Main Street in Greenville. For tickets, call (864) 467-3000 or visit http://www.peacecenter.org.

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