It is easy to praise Chazz Palminteri’s acting ability in bringing nearly a score of colorful characters to life in his one-man show A Bronx Tale. Equally impressive is his ability to craft such a rich and poignant semi-autobiographical memoir.
Palminteri paints an affectionate portrait of his childhood Bronx, a place where kids grew up on the street corner nurtured by doo-wop music and their mother’s pasta sauce. It was a world populated by such Damon Runyonesque characters as Jojo the Whale (grossly overweight), Frankie Coffeecake (gross complexion), and Crazy Mario (just plain gross).
Young Cologio Lorenzo Romano Alfredo Palminteri (nicknamed “C”) faces the challenge of developing a moral code while growing up exposed to the rough influences of the street. As an innocent nine year-old he helps conceal a crime by the gangster Sonny, an act which his father Lorenzo describes as doing a “good thing for a bad man.” C quickly falls under the spell of Sonny, a man treated like a god in the neighborhood.
A tug of war over C develops between his father, a hard-working bus driver, and the flashy Sonny. Palminteri wisely gives both men virtues and flaws. His father teaches C lessons like the saddest thing in life is wasted talent and it does not take much strength to pull a trigger. Sonny provides C with a street education while encouraging him in school and relationships as well.
Palminteri’s ability to bring these characters vividly to life is an acting tour de force. The characterizations are so strong that soon the audience can recognize the individual players from a single stance or gesture. Palminteri weaves the supporting characters through the story with wonderful comic effect.
Although the story is presented without intermission, a clear break occurs an hour into the show as eight years pass and C turns seventeen and his moral inquiries involve issues of romance and racism. While the story loses some narrative momentum at this point, the humor remains strong. Eventually Palminteri sets into motion a collision of events that brings the story to a convenient yet powerful conclusion.
Palminteri expertly blends storytelling and acting to present a moving coming-of-age drama. His vigorous performance contains moments of touching emotional honesty that are nicely balanced with well-drawn character humor. The fine hand of legendary director Jerry Zaks doubtless helped mold the performance.
Palminteri’s sincere storytelling is aided by a spare yet charming street corner set designed by James Noone. Paul Gallo’s lighting design also expertly enhances the story and the stage movements while remaining unobtrusive.
Palminteri first staged A Bronx Tale in 1989, yet I suspect the show has only gotten more heartrending over the last twenty years. He clearly enjoys revisiting the world of his childhood. Any theatergoer who appreciates powerful personal narrative and consummate professional acting will enjoy taking this trip with him.
Warning: adult language and mature themes
Running Time: 1:35 (no intermission)
Where: A Bronx Tale at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th Street, NW (between E and F), Washington, DC
When: Through March 8th. Tues through and Sat at 8:00 pm, Sun at 6:30 pm, matinees on Sat at 2:00 pm and Sun at 1:30 pm.