Saturday, December 31, 2016

Review of "A Bronx Tale"

The new musical A Bronx Tale has gone through many iterations—one person show, major motion picture and now big, splashy Broadway musical.  The show is based on the recollections of actor Chazz Palminteri during his formative years growing up in a tightly knit Italian neighborhood in the Bronx.  The musical is a traditionally structured production, as opposed to such other new, more innovative works as Dear Evan Hansen and Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812.  Nonetheless, A Bronx Tale is, an entertaining and satisfying piece of musical theater.
Bobby Conte Thornton (center) and Nick Cordero (right) and members of the cast from "A Bronx Tale."
The story follows the trajectory of Palminteri from little tyke through his teenage years during the late 1950’s to late 1960’s.  Known as Calogero, his life forever changes when he witnesses a daytime murder by the neighborhood wiseguy, Sonny, but doesn’t rat him out to the police.  To show his gratitude Sonny takes him under his wings, to the displeasure of his mother and, especially, his father who sees the local ruffian as a malignant influence.  However, the boy is transfixed by the hooligan’s lifestyle and respect he receives from people on the street.  As Calogero gets older and becomes more intertwined with the hoodlums the question becomes will the seductiveness these mobsters radiate be too great to resist?  Will he succumb to the appeal of the street or break free to pursue a better, healthier way of life?

As a playwright, Palminteri has crafted a memoir that is funny as well as poignant and introspective.  Having the teenage protagonist consistently step out of character to act as the narrator of the show helps frame the action and provide necessary exposition for the audience.  It’s not just a coming of age story about an impressionable young man and the trials and tribulations he faces growing up in an insulated section of New York City.  It is also a tale of choices and the clash of values and ethics he faces between the hard-working beliefs and ethics of his parents and those of his “adopted” family.
Nick Cordero and Hudson Loverro from "A Bronx Tale."
The music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater combine traditionally structured Broadway songs with doo wop numbers reminiscent of the times as well as rhythm and blues tinged vocals.  The score can by brash, high-spirited, and wistful. 

The cast is led by Nick Cordero as the wiseguy Sonny.  He’s charismatic, menacing and no-nonsense.  He gives the character a magnetic allure even though we are chilled by his demeanor and actions.  Bobby Conte Thornton, making his Broadway debut as the teenage Calogero, imbues the wide-eyed youth with internal conflicts and struggling allegiances.  He admirably grows as a character from a naïve, uncorrupted individual to a more mature person questioning his life, choices and direction.  
Hudson Loverro, as the younger Calogero, brings a spunky enthusiasm and professionalisms to his role.  Richard H. Blake, as their father, conveys an earnestness and principled firmness to his character.  Ariana DeBose as the teenage boy’s love interest, Jane, has an engaging presence, an independent-minded persona, and an attitude to take on and overcome all obstacles. 
Members of the ensemble from "A Bronx Tale."
Sergio Trujillo’s choreographer can be exuberant, as with the opening number, “Belmont Avenue.”   The production numbers move to the rhythms and sounds of the day.  As with his previous work in Jersey Boys, Memphis, and On Your Feet! they can be sexy, sultry, and full of energy as the dance routines  evolve naturally from the action on stage.

Directors Robert de Niro and Jerry Zaks know their way around the material—de Niro was the director of the acclaimed film version and both helmed the out-of-town tryout in Spring 2016 at New Jersey’s Papermill Playhouse.  They bring a knowing language and histrionics to the characters.  The duo spend the first act slowly developing and massaging the overall arc of the musical with a street smart sensibility. This gives them the opportunity to ramp up the storyline with a rush of material and commotion, culminating in a conclusion that neatly ties up the dramatic machinations of the show. 

A Bronx Tale, a welcoming addition to this season’s line-up of new musicals.

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