We may be in a new golden age of Broadway musicals. The past season was unusually strong, with two smash hit new musicals, DEAR EVAN HANSEN (the Tony Award winner for Best Musical) and COME FROM AWAY; and one insanely popular revival (Bette Midler in HELLO, DOLLY!) joining the ranks of smash hits HAMILTON and THE BOOK Of MORMON. Getting a ticket to any of those shows will require much advance planning, paying hundreds a ticket for premium seats or buying through a reseller like StubHub. You may have a marginally easier time finding tickets to WICKED or THE LION KING, but don’t count on it. But amid all these blockbusters are some worthy musicals that might have gotten more attention in a less stellar year than the 2016-17 turned out to be. One such musical is A BRONX TALE: THE MUSICAL, which opened to favorable reviews in December 2016 and has been doing steady, if unspectacular business ever since. (It couldn’t have helped that 3 days after this show’s premiere, DEAR EVAN HANSEN opened to raves.) For those on a budget, or looking to taste the Broadway experience on shorter notice, this show delivers.
A BRONX TALE:THE MUSICAL based on earlier play and Robert De Niro FilmA BRONX TALE is based on writer/actor Chazz Palminteri’s one-man play and its 1993 film adaptation directed by and starring Robert De Niro along with Palminteri. The play, movie and musical are all based on Palminteri’s life story as a kid growing up in The Bronx in the 1960’s, when he was still being called by his birth name Calogero. At age nine, Palminteri witnessed a murder by a neighborhood mobster and after refusing to ID the mobster to the police, earned the trust of the mobster, here called “Sonny.” Calogero becomes involved, mostly benignly as a sort of mascot, to the gangster. Calogero’s dad, the hard-working bus driver Lorenzo, with whom he’s warm had a warm relationship, disapproves and worries he’ll throw his life away by becoming involved in crime. Over the years, Calogero continues to secretly hang out with Sonny and his gang. The story picks up again eight years later, in 1968, as Calogero is seventeen and becoming a man who must make choices.
Beyond the choice between the dangerous but exciting and profitable life of a gangster that Sonny represents, Calogero finds himself torn between loyalty to “his kind,” meaning white Italian-Americans; and the smart, pretty African-American classmate Jane, whom Calogero would like to date. Calogero has of late been hanging out with, in addition to Sonny and his pals, a group of tough Italian-American teenagers who believe the African-Americans need to stay on their side of the line – in their own nearby neighborhood. For those who sometimes struggle to drag husbands, boyfriends or sons to see a musical, this is a very much a “guy show,” in the vein of JERSEY BOYS.
Alan Menken’s score evokes the sounds of the ‘60s
Palminteri’s story has been set to music by Alan Menken, the composer so many of the Disney musicals of the past decades (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ALADDIN, THE LITTLE MERMAID, NEWSIES, POCAHONTAS and HERCULES), who has of late been writing more for the Broadway stage with lyricist Glenn Slater, his writing partner on this musical as well as SISTER ACT and LEAP OF FAITH. Menken and Slater’s score for A BRONX TALE borrows from a variety of genres of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including rock & roll (“Belmont Avenue”), doo-wop (“I Like It”), ‘60’s girl groups (“Out of My Head”), Motown (“Webster Avenue,” “In a World Like This”) and a Frank Sinatra-styled swing ballad (“One of the Great Ones”). This eclectic score is tuneful and agreeable, and sounds like the sorts of music these varied characters in a time of profound changes in society and musical tastes would sing. Slater’s lyrics are clever and insightful.
But sometimes more is less… and sometimes less is less
In this writer’s view, the downside of this variety in the score is that it lacks the sort of cohesion that would set up and drive the story while establishing a tone for the piece and suggesting the author’s point of view. That exacerbates the trouble the book by Palminteri and the direction by De Niro and Jerry Zaks have with consistency of tone. The gangsters are played mostly for laughs – we can blame this on Zaks, who is one Broadway’s most successful directors of comedy – but sometimes they kill people, and savagely beat people. How are we supposed to feel about that? And how are we supposed to feel about Calogero, that sweet little nine-year old we see grow up to age 17 who becomes associated with mobsters? Most troubling is the uncertain point of view toward Sonny – a charming guy much of the time, but someone who kills as well. Just because he’s good to Calogero and sometimes gives him good advice (in the form of that Sinatra-esque ballad “One of the Great Ones”), are we supposed to like him?
The dichotomy between the straight, hard-working life of Calogero’s dad Lorenzo and more profitable but immoral and dangerous life of crime represented by Sonny is a fascinating one, but in this writer’s view it’s not explored fully enough. Maybe Palminteri, De Niro and Zaks – all of whom are very close to this property, having worked on it in other forms – believed it was obvious. Palminteri, of course, wrote the original one-man play, the film screenplay and the book for this musical. Zaks directed the original one-man-play and De Niro directed the film. Maybe a fresh set of eyes would have helped.
Adding to the already rich premise is the secondary theme of race relations. In between 1960, when the story begins, and 1968 when it resumes, African-Americans have moved in to a nearby Bronx neighborhood. As long as people stay on their side of the imaginary “line,” things are okay, but Calogero’s attraction to African-American classmate Jane forces him to confront the prejudices in his community. So, A BRONX TALE takes on a lot of themes, but is a surprisingly short show – just two hours, including one intermission. Perhaps the writers could have taken another 30 minutes to flesh out the ideas inherent in this admittedly strong premise.
Solid Broadway craftsmanship all around
Even so, A BRONX TALE is a solid Broadway entertainment, featuring a first-rate cast. Nick Cordero, a Tony Award nominee for BULLETS OVER BROADWAY who also appeared in WAITRESS, manages to be both charming and threatening as Sonny. Cordero earned a Tony Award® nomination for this performance and his crooning of “One of the Great Ones” ought to propel that song of love advice to standard status. (Interestingly, both of Cordero’s roles in BULLETS and A BRONX TALE were originated by Palminteri in the original film versions). As Calogero’s dad Lorenzo is Richard H. Blake, a hardworking Broadway actor who originated the comic roles of Warner in LEGALLY BLONDE and Glenn in THE WEDDING SINGER as well as serving as a replacement lead in many long-running Broadway musicals. Here he’s a sincere and most likable dad, and nicely selling his big solo, “Look to Your Heart,” sung to the young Calogero.
Bobby Conte Thornton is making his Broadway debut as the 17-year-old Calogero and he has all the emerging sex appeal of a slender young kid growing into manhood as well as a believably Italian look and a sold bari-tenor voice. Though this is his first Broadway appearance, he succeeds in carrying the show as its central character and narrator. The nine-year-old Calogero is now being played at most performances by Will Coombs, who was in the performance reviewed here and is an adorable little pro. This reviewed performance was also, luckily, a chance to catch Ariana De Bose, who originated the role of Jane, on her last day in the show. Ms. De Bose is a very appealing performer with a crystal-clear voice who is certainly destined for big things. She’s already appeared in HAMILTON, PIPPIN, MOTOWN THE MUSICAL and BRING IT ON.
A typically hard-working ensemble executes the flashy dances of Sergio Trujillo (choreographer of JERSEY BOYS, MEMPHIS and ON YOUR FEET, as well as many other shows). The set by Beowulf Boritt uses a series of towers (you may have seen him talk about them in a Microsoft TV commercials) that move around and morph into different locations around the Bronx. William Ivey Long’s costumes capture the looks of the Bronx and the two ethnic groups depicted apparently authentically.
So, don’t let the dearth of awards or availability of tickets deter you – this is an entertaining show created and performed by some of Broadway’s top talent. Recalling the old Groucho Marx joke, “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member,” don’t pass on A BRONX TALE just because you can get tickets to it.
December 16, 2016 -
220 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036
John Olson is principal of John Olson Communications, providing public relations and marketing services to arts and entertainment clients (www.facebook.com/