New York City Theater
"A Bronx Tale"
It’s Italian Belmont Ave. vs. African-American Webster Ave. in “A Bronx Tale,” the appealing, harmless, derivative new musical based on librettist Chazz Palminteri’s charming movie and his subsequent one-man play. He’s gotten a lot of mileage from this remembrance of events just up to the point of diminishing returns.
That there’s nothing much really unlikable about “A Bronx Tale” doesn’t recommend it to those looking for more than an evening’s diversion. Good performances, a tuneful score and a big heart do not compensate for a thin, rather obvious plot and familiar themes.
The year is 1968: A teenager, Calogero, tells of the incident that changed his life. Flashing back to 1960, he re-lives witnessing a murder by a gangster named Sonny. Questioned by the police, nine-year-old Calogero refuses to rat, endearing him to Sonny. Advising the kid about existing on the streets, Sonny later gives advice to the now-grown man on how to handle a girl who may turn out to be “one of the great ones.”
Opposing Sonny, the putative dad, are Calogero’s parents, especially his real father, Lorenzo, who says, “You did a good thing for a bad man.” In one of the show’s best numbers of this tuneful, doo-wop inflected Broadway score (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater), Lorenzo advises his son to “Look to Your Heart.” Sonny, on the other hand, believes in both love and fear, a combination gleaned from reading “The Prince.” He makes his case in what must surely be one of the strangest songs ever written, “Nicky Machiavelli,” a tribute to that Renaissance author.
The dynamic between fear and love, present in both "fathers," drives the evening. When Sonny advises, “Never mistake kindness for weakness,” and “Follow your heart,” he sounds a lot like Lorenzo. As another line goes, “It’s never black and white; just shades of gray,” good and bad coalescing in two dads, one philosophy.
Besides the Sonny / Calogero / Lorenzo conflict is the young man’s desire for Jane, a black girl from the next neighborhood. An inter-racial rumble is inevitable, one with all the hallmarks of “West Side Story.”
As co-directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, with uninspired choreography by Sergio Trujillo, the show is acted with ferocity. Nick Cordero is an endearing Sonny, Bobby Conte Thornton is adept at showing Calogero’s growth into responsible adulthood and Richard H. Blake is a sincere Lorenzo, colorless in comparison with Sonny but decent and hard-working. Ariana DeBose imbues Jane with off-beat sweetness, while Hudson Loverro is dynamic as the younger Calogero.
“A Bronx Tale” raises lively questions: about the fine line between good and bad, about the lures and limits of morality, about the clash between nature and nurture, about the pros and cons of shooting your way through life.
True, some people die but it’s all so lightly handled that danger is doubtful. The show merely wants to entertain. Nothing wrong with that.
--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 14, 2016