Theater Review: A BRONX TALE (North American Tour)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 14, 2019

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


Unpretentious and unpreaching in its streetwise survival lore, the gangster fable A Bronx Tale is, as the name implies, just one of many small sagas from the lesser borough. Now on tour, this 2016 musical has a book by Chazz Palminteri, based on his semi-autobiographical solo show and the 1993 film directed by Robert De Niro. Directed by De Niro and Jerry Zaks, Palminteri spins a minor morality tale about a poor boy who latches onto the wrong role model. In this case, father does know best.

In the spirit of West Side Story and HairsprayA Bronx Tale also tackles race relations in 1960s. Best of all, it makes it personal and, in a little over two hours, efficient too.

Unexcelled at finding the right sounds for a story, Alan Menken’s funky score finds a happy home in Glenn Slater’s serviceable lyrics. Songs like “These Streets” and “In a World Like This” speed the plot, point the theme (nothing is ever absolute), and earn their own as they deepen the drama.

Tale boils down to an emotional tug of war for one kid’s devotion. Our narrator Calogero Anello (Joey Barreiro) looks back at his younger self (Frankie Leoni), a boy who confuses respect with achievement. Drawn to the wrong dreams, the boy turns away from his unexceptional bus driver dad Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) and becomes a sort of surrogate son for the neighborhood mob boss.

After the boy refuses to snitch after seeing Sonny gun down one of his many enemies, Sonny (Joe Barbara) all but adopts Young Calogero. He proceeds to run with his colorful crew (Jojo The Whale, Eddie Mush, Rudy the Voice, Tony 10 to 2, Handsome Nick, Crazy Mario, Frankie Coffeecake). Putting his conscience on ice, Calogero rejects his hardworking dad’s ethic of patience and integrity, the cardinal sin being “wasting your talent.” The preening punk likes being the toast of “Belmont Avenue” and he buys into Sonny’s Machiavellian credo that fear counts much more than love.

Schooling him on love (Sonny has a great test for rating a girlfriend to see if she’s “One of the Great Ones”), Sonny is more tolerant of Calogero’s passion for a special African-American friend named Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell).

As if being caught between the irreconcilable values of Sonny and Lorenzo wasn’t bad enough, Calogero finds himself embroiled in a racial turf war. It’s then that Sonny does a good deed that, even if it can’t atone for the don’s many sins, at least restores the son to his dad (“Look to Your Heart”).

Nowadays any musical that makes a case that money matters less than real respect delivers a very topical tonic. The final number, “The Choices We Make,” drives home the perils of betting your soul by continuing to cheat.

Along the edifying way there are plumb performances from Barreiro and Leoni as the quick-learning Calgeros, wide-eyed but not always open-hearted, and Barbara and Blake as very different father figures who both manage to rise to Calogero’s occasion. Bell’s Marie is as wonderful a Juliet as fickle Calogero deserves.

Costume designer William Ivey Long is always reliable at finding the right look for the right cast, Beowulf Boritt’s iconic streetlights and versatile fire escapes are beautifully bathed in russet colors by Howell Brinkley, and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography turns “Webster Avenue,” “Hurt Someone,” and “Out of Your Head” into very guilty urban pleasures. This tale is worth telling.

photos by Joan Marcus

A Bronx Tale
national tour
James M. Nederlander Theatre
for tickets, visit Broadway in Chicago
ends in Chicago on March 24, 2019
national tour continues until Aug. 4, 2019
for dates, cities, and info, visit A Bronx Tale

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