Sometimes even the most stellar combination of exceptional creative talent doesn’t add up to exceptional theatre. That’s the case with the musical version of A BRONX TALE, which features a book by Academy Award nominee Chazz Palminteri, music by Tony and four-time Oscar and 11-time Grammy winner Alan Menken, and lyrics by Grammy winner and Oscar and Tony nominee Glenn Slater, co-directed by two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro and four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks, with choreography by Tony nominee Sergio Trujillo. A BRONX TALE is based on Palminteri’s 1990 one-man show about growing up in the racially segregated borough in the 1960s, which developed into a 1993 feature film directed by de Niro. In 2007, Palminteri revived the one man performance on Broadway, directed by Jerry Zacks.
Familiarity of the creative principals with the material in this case doesn’t lead to a fresh product. It’s not entirely their fault: given the terrain BRONX TALE covers, JERSEY BOYS is around every corner, but listen as hard as one can the infectious, pop effervescence of the Four Seasons is nowhere to be heard.
Palminteri’s coming of age story about growing up on the rough and tumble, Italian-American streets of the Bronx in the 1960s is engaging enough. As a young boy, Palminteri’s autobiographical character Calogero witnesses a street murder by the neighborhood crime boss Sonny. After Calogero refuses to identify Sonny in the police line-up of suspects, he becomes Sonny’s kid protégée, putting him at odds with his law-abiding, dutiful father, hard-working bus driver Lorenzo. Calogero’s conflict is clear, but the book, reduced to Broadway musical formula, doesn’t get too deep, so the melodrama seldom rises above the sentimental. The themes of family, loyalty and morality are obvious, too. Will Calogero take a straight and narrow path from adolescence in the Bronx to adulthood in the larger world? You guessed it.
Act II focuses largely on a WEST SIDE STORY subplot when teenage Calogero finds his first true love in Jane, from the African American neighborhood, off limits to the Italian Americans. It’s an occasion for songwriters Mencken and Slater to add back some soul to the doo-wop that white America appropriated from African American street culture but not much. Menken’s tunes conform compositionally to the successful portfolio he’s assembled for nearly a dozen animated Disney features, many of which have become Bradway blockbusters like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and FROZEN, in the works for 2018. Slater, who most recently wrote lyrics for SCHOOL OF ROCK and is best known for THE LITTLE MERMAID, sticks with monosyllabic teenage-speak. Even when the adults break into song, the words seem adolescent. When singing about the stubbornness of Lorenzo, his wife Rosina laments “You can't budge him. But don't you dare judge him.”
Of the 19 musical numbers - five of which are reprised - the memorable is Act II’s “One of the Great Ones”, a lovely, bittersweet ballad, sung by an impressive Nick Cordero who plays Sonny. He delivers it to the teenage Calogero, who’s in the throes of first love and puberty, and it’s both Sonny's jocular man-to-man pointers on dating women and a poignant reflection on his personal failures in relationships. Here, the simplicity of Slater’s lyrics match perfectly with Menken’s plaintive melody, which recalls the best of the romantic ballads from the 1940s and 50s of crooners like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Cordero’s vocal interpretation, while acknowledging those masters, is uniquely his own, combining lyrical clarity and a rich, vocal resonance. It’s the highlight of Cordero’s performance, and his performance is really the highlight of A BRONX TALE.
Richard H. Blake as Lorenzo the dad excels too, and the younger cast member who plays Calogero as a grade-schooler, Hudson Loverro, is terrific, especially in “I Like It”. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography seems to recycle what he did for JERSEY BOYS way back when. Newer moves are apparent in the dances he’s arranged for the Black kids in Act II.
The inventive scenic designer Beowulf Boritt creates four towered structures that are tenement facades with front stoops, fire-escaped in the rear. They rotate, and slide back and forth, upstage to down. All the parts of A BRONX TALE fall into place as methodically and precisely as these structures but without much originality or inspiration.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!