“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent,” Lorenzo the bus driver tells his son, Calogero, in A Bronx Tale. There’s no wasted talent in the rock-solid touring production of the musical that swaggered into the National Theatre Tuesday night.
A Bronx Tale has a tale of its own. It began as Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical 1989 off-Broadway one-man show. Then Robert De Niro, in his directorial debut, took it to the screen in a 1993 adaptation. Palminteri brought the one-man version to Broadway in 2007. And this musical iteration opened in 2016, with Palminteri’s script, music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, and direction by De Niro and Jerry Zaks.
Can the gritty authenticity of the story survive the leap from straight drama to musical? The answer is yes—if you find a cast that blends Scorsese- and Coppola-film-type character acting with vocal and dance chops. That’s a lot to ask, but this remarkable team has the goods.
A Bronx Tale
closes March 31, 2019
Details and tickets
Calogero’s loyalties are divided between his straight-arrow, work-a-day dad, Lorenzo, and the flashy neighborhood gangster, Sonny, who dubs the kid “C.” As played by an ice-cold, silk-smooth Joey Calveri, Sonny is glamorous, dangerous, cash-flashing, and feared. Lorenzo—a confident, amiable Richard H. Blake—is beloved, but—to an impressionable kid with a gangster whispering in his ear—a chump in comparison.
Sonny and Lorenzo have their own tense history, and Manichean dualities dissolve into interesting shades of gray as C (stirringly played as an adolescent Conflictedfella by Joey Barreiro) becomes infatuated with a girl named Jane (a golden-voiced Brianna-Marie Bell) from the wrong neighborhood.
All that, plus the 1960s setting, offer strong elements for Menken and Slater to work with in their score, played with uptown punch by a nine-piece orchestra. There are doowop numbers like the act openers “Belmont Avenue” and “Webster Avenue”; ballads like “Look to Your Heart,” in which Michelle Aravena as C’s mom, Rosina, shines in Act II; a funny dark Rat Pack-style homage by Sonny to “Nicky Machiavelli”; and a swinging love song, “One of the Great Ones,” in which Menken finds a vintage pop Burt Bacharach vibe.
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Set designer Beowulf Boritt’s multilayered crisscross of streets, stoops, storefronts, and fire escapes is lit by Howell Binkley in vibrant reds reflective of the narrative’s dreams and menaces. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo’s acrobatics, African-American step, and sexy hip-swaying is well dressed by costumer William Ivey Long. And Garth Owen’s sound design is unobtrusively clever, punctuating police mug-shot camera flashes as we’re introduced to Sonny’s misfit crew, who have memorable nicknames like Eddie Mush, Jojo the Whale, and Frankie Coffeecake.
Palminteri himself bade the audience hello from the stage after the show, saluting his parents and recalling performances at National of West Side Story.
A Bronx Tale isn’t that. It’s not out to remake a genre or reinterpret a classic. But it knows what it’s about—one man’s colorful coming of age—and it depicts it with imagination, assurance, and a lot of heart.
A Bronx Tale at the National Theatre through March 31. Book by Chazz Palminteri. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. With Joey Calveri, Richard H. Blake, Joey Barreiro, Michelle Aravena, Brianna-Marie Bell, Antonio Beverly, Frankie Leoni, and Shane Pry. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.
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