“A Bronx Tale,” the new Broadway musical co-directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, tells a story that its author, Chazz Palminteri, says is true: He really did witness a mob killing as a kid in the Bronx and kept quiet about it, winning over the local mobster, who became in effect his second father – posing a challenge to Palminteri’s real father, an honest bus driver. Palminteri also really did date an African-American girl when he was a teenager.
But the musical that’s opened at the Longacre – the third “A Bronx Tale,” after Palminteri’s solo stage play that debuted Off-Broadway in 1989, and the 1993 De Niro movie – seems based less on a true story than on other Broadway musicals. The characters feel borrowed from “Jersey Boys” and “Guys and Dolls,” the plot in Act II from “West Side Story.” And Alan Menken’s score, a pleasing if generic mix of doo-wop and Motown and Broadway ballads, manages to make “A Bronx Tale” feel like an old jukebox musical, even though all of the songs are original and none of them likely to become hits.
This familiarity has its advantages. There’s a Broadway sheen to “A Bronx Tale,” a show that is put together by a group of seasoned Broadway pros. (The single exception is De Niro, making his Broadway debut as a director, although his contribution to the end result is less clear than Zaks’.)
Now, it may be true that each member of the creative team has done his best work elsewhere, and that “A Bronx Tale” is unlikely to make anybody’s top 10 list. But the show is also unlikely to disappoint theatergoers nostalgic for the old neighborhood and the old-time Broadway show. There is an audience for surface entertainment if it’s polished enough. So, yes, maybe the grit from the old Italian-American neighborhood of Belmont Avenue has been scrubbed clean, but there is craftsmanship on display in the look of the show, from the set design by Beowulf Boritt (Act One, On The Town) that cleverly suggests a fire escape-dotted tenement neighborhood circa 1960 to the lighting design by Howell Binkley (Hamilton) that bathes the stage in hues of hot red and jazzy blue. The choreography by Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, On Your Feet) is efficient and effective.
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
The same can be said about the cast. The character Calogero — stand-in for Chazz Palminteri (whose real first name is Calogero) — is portrayed by two actors. Hudson Loverro is terrific as a swaggering nine-year-old Calogero. As the teenage Calogero, Bobby Conte Thornton, who supplies the (often unnecessary) narration, has good looks and a good voice, and isn’t required to act very much. Ariana DeBose is a charming and mellifluous presence as Jane, the only woman character that has anything approaching a distinctive personality. Richard H. Blake portrays Lorenzo, Calagero’s father, a stolid counterpoint to the more exciting Sonny.
As Sonny, Nick Cordero shines in A Bronx Tale, a mobster as cool and generous as Sinatra, and as casually ruthless as any Goodfella. When he takes Calogero under his wing, there seems genuine affection there, and it’s clear why Calogero would become besotted, especially after Sonny in an act of mercy gives Calogero the nickname “C.” At the same time, Cordero’s Sonny isn’t a panda bear; he can turn vicious on a dime, and he trusts no one — traits that he himself sees as limitations. Cordero even sings my favorite song in the show, “One of the Great Ones,” and is the main voice in the amusing “Nicky Machiavelli.” Nick Cordero is, in short, the best thing about “A Bronx Tale.”
Ironically, the actor feels rescued from “Waitress,” in which he had the thankless role of the abusive husband Earl; before that, he was the best thing by far in the stage adaptation of “Bullets Over Broadway.” This poses an interesting dilemma: Is it better to have a mediocre role in a good show, or be the best thing in a mediocre one?
A Bronx Tale
Book by Chazz Palminteri; Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Glenn Slater; Choreography by Sergio Trujillo; Directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks
Set designed by Beowulf Boritt, costumes designed by William Ivey Long, lighting design by Howell Binkley, sound designed by Gareth Owen
Cast Nick Cordero, Richard H. Blake, Bobby Conte Thornton, Ariana DeBose, Lucia Giannetta, Bradley Gibson, Gilbert L. Bailey II, Joe Barbara, Michael Barra, Jonathan Brody, Ted Brunetti, Brittany Conigatti, Kaleigh Cronin, Trista Dollison, David Michael Garry, Rory Max Kaplan, Dominic Nolfi, Christiani Pitts, Paul Salvatoriello, Joey Sorge, Cary David Tedder, Kirstin Tucker, Keith White, Michelle Aravena, Gerald Caesar, Charlie Marcus, Wonu Ogunfowora, Hudson Loverro and Joseph J. Simeone
Running time: Two hours, including on intermission
Tickets: $77 to $187