NEW YORK – In Los Angeles in 1988, unknown actor Chazz Palminteri wrote a solo play, “A Bronx Tale,” about his memories of growing up in the Italian section of the Bronx.
It debuted in New York off-Broadway a year later and attracted the attention of actor Robert De Niro, who eventually starred in and directed a 1993 film version of the play.
I caught up with Palminteri’s one-man show when it was revived on Broadway in 2007. I found it to be an excellent slice of American life as related by Palminteri, playing a youngster named Calogero. He stands under a street lamp on Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, filling our heads with tales of the dozens of colorfully checkered people who populated his 1960s youth.
His two heroes were his dad Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake), a loving bus driver; and Sonny (Nick Cordero), a local Bronx capo whose life he had unwittingly saved as a kid.
In the touching story, Calogero wrestles with his feelings for each of these very different opposing father figures.
Now, “A Bronx Tale” is a musical at Broadway's Longacre Theatre on West 48th Street.
A golden crew has been assembled around Palminteri to craft the new show with Alan Menken doing the music and Glenn Slater, the lyrics. The two are Disney and Broadway composing favorites. Choreography is by Sergio Trujillo, who won a Tony for “Jersey Boys,” and the co-directors are actor De Niro and theater stalwart Jerry Zaks.
The result is an amiable effort that doesn’t quite work the way Palminteri’s solo show did. There, his words and his acting did it all. Now, he has collaborators galore and it seems to dwarf his personal tale. In adapting the libretto from his own play, he has stripped it of some of its feeling and fun. He probably could have used a co-musical book writer, since when musicals go awry, it’s usually the result of libretto problems.
“A Bronx Tale” starts off nicely with a quartet of doo-wop guys singing, setting the audience at ease and setting us in the ’60s milieu.
There are some nice rock and roll tunes that seem like throwback numbers; they might remind some people of songs that Menken wrote with his late collaborator Howard Ashman during their “Little Shop of Horrors” days. There are also a couple of ballads: “Look to Your Heart,” which Lorenzo sings to his young son Calogero (Hudson Loverro); and “Out of Your Heart,” which Bobby Conte Thornton, as an older Calogero, sings to his new girlfriend Jane (Ariana DeBose).
I think the best song in the show is Sonny’s “One of the Great Ones,” in which he tries to give advice about women to the teenage Calogero. It is a showstopper with humor and wit.
Mr. Trujillo is a choreographer who knows how to pick the finest dancers on Broadway, and he creates a couple of dazzling ensemble dance numbers that capture the period.
The show has been called a combination of “Jersey Boys” and “West Side Story.” “Jersey Boys” had a much tighter dramatic book and a slicker look, and “West Side Story” was crafted on Shakespeare’s tragic “Romeo and Juliet.”
The beginning of the show is more like “Jersey Boys.” Unfortunately, in the second act, the show’s tone changes suddenly when class and racial conflicts are introduced into the mix.
Before that, the young Calogero has a sweetness to his character. When he becomes a teenager, he’s not only played by a different actor but becomes a whole new person. That is when the atmosphere changes into “West Side Story” mode and the show becomes awkwardly melodramatic.
The cast is large and full of first-rate actors who sadly don't have a lot to do. As the young Calogero, Hudson Loverro at 8 years old is a wonder, and we miss him when he grows up and is replaced by Thornton, who is excellent in a different way, has a fine singing voice and could be what used to be known as a matinee idol.
As his father Lorenzo, Blake has some effective songs in Act One and then sort of disappears. Lucia Giannetta as Calogero’s mother Rosina and Ms. Debose, whom I admired in “Hamilton” last year, are both great talents; we don't see or hear enough of them in “A Bronx Tale.”
And as the show's leading man Sonny, Cordero is perfection. If Palminteri doesn't watch out, Cordero will take over all his acting roles.
Beowulf Boritt did the set design with lots of scenic backdrops and fire escapes that evoke the Bronx. William Ivy Long designed the costumes, and the lighting is by Howell Binkley.
“A Bronx Tale” is not the musical show we hoped for, but it does have entertaining moments and that starry talented cast.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.