A Bronx Tale, book by Chazz Palminteri, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater. Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Show Finale: Joe Barbara (l), Joey Barreiro (c); photo: Joan Marcus
"You wanna know what it takes to be a real Paisan?"
Richard H. Blake, Frankie Leoni, Michele Aravena; photo: Joan Marcus
The doo-wop musical set in New York City's northernmost borough, The Bronx (always use the The), takes us to two different neighborhoods set only a few blocks apart: Belmont Avenue - a heavily Italian-American center with its own mini-Mafia in place, and Webster Avenue - a Black-American neighborood where my grandfather had his used furniture store during the era covered by this show - the 1960s. I knew these streets and met these people before I became a teenager and this show took me back there like nothing ever has before. Chazz Palminteri grew up there and this musical is based on the one-man play he wrote and performed back in the 1990s and again in the early part of this century. It was made into a film in 1993 with Robert De Niro playing the leading role of Lorenzo, the hero's father. He later, in conjunction with Jerry Zaks brought this musical to vivid life on Broadway where it ran for over 700 performances. The touring company, now at Proctors in Schenectady, includes three members of the original Broadway company.
In the "tale" the hero, young Calogero Anello witnesses as gangland killing but never reals the identity of the murderer. A high-laced gang member befriends the boy and becomes an "alternative" father, grooming the child for Mafia membership. Calogero, or young "C" learns to idolize the gangster, Sonny, whose concern for the child and later young man, is stabilizing and morally uplifting experience for the man. The friendship sets his own father, "Lorenzo," in to a tizzy. A bus driver who supports his family on just what he can make legally and morally, Lorenzo hates "new Papa" with a passion, resenting the inspiring image both he and Sonny present to his son.
Brianna-Marie Bell, Joey Barreiro; photo: Joan Marcus
Richard H. Blake, who plays Lorenzo, played this role for the entire Broadway run and is continuing in the part for this National Tour. He is wonderful as the moral center of the piece. He has strength and determination on his side in the script, a strong and beautiful voice which, combined with a handsome face, makes his musical moments of great importance and an ability to show the internal battles behind Lorenzo's choices. It is a terrific performance in a difficult role which plays out beautifully right through the final moments of the musical.
His wife was played with grace and beauty by Michelle Aravena. Frankly, she doesn't have enough to do and even her short arietta in the second act felt like a gift to her for being so good at being non-intrusive. As their young son, an eight-year old boy, Frankie Leoni defines the part perfectly. Half of the dramatic moments in the play go to this youngster and he keeps them alive and real.
As his older self (still not quite twenty) and as the narrator of his own story, "C" is played by Joey Barreiro who can mix up the sweetness of the man he is becoming with the street kid angst of the teenager facing his peers, along with the older gangsters he associates with, and the lovestruck young fool the young wooing the Black woman he has fallen for in spite of his inbred instincts. Barreiro is a dynamic performer who sings well and acts even more perfectly. He is the embodiment of the young Chazz Palminteri and he presents his character without caricature.
As Jane, the girl in the picture, Brianna-Marie Bell is superb. She knows when and how to pull back and be self-protective and how and when to be completely unprejudiced as she seeks to be the best of all possible friends. Her character's effect on "C" is what this play is all about, really, and both of the actors bring a great sense of reality to the work.
Joe Barbara, Richard H. Blake; photo: Joan Marcus
But as sincerity goes the two men who live with a face-off, Calogero's two "fathers," are the true heart and soul of the play. Blake, as noted, is a perfect father figure to both his child and his teen-age son. Joe Barbara as Sonny, the morally skewed gangster has the more difficult role: a man who is one thing to many and many things to one. To his gang he is an amoral leader whom they respect but do not quite love. To Calogero he is an inspiration whom the boy adores but a man whose morals and life-choices are almost inexplicable. He admires Sonny, treasures his friendship; he echoes the man's choices in many ways and consults him on issues that a boy often takes up with his father. Even so, when the inevitable comes to pass, though Calogero can mourn his losses, he can also understand the moral choices made by bad men and good men alike. Barbara constantly presents this entirety in this show. He makes Sonny admirable while doing the worst things imaginable. He leads not just the boy, but the audience into his world and his unavoidable decisions. Barbara, top-listed in the program, is truly the star of the show no matter how good anyone else is their roles.
The show's doo-wop aspect is only one of the forms the musical takes. A very traditional score the entertainment - singing, dancing, acting - is uniformly fun and delightful. It's hard not to come away from this show without wondering about your own moral center, but at least you can hum a tune or two and dance your way back to your car. The production is beautiful with fine sets designed by Beowulf Boritt, nice period costumes by William Ivey Long and beautiful lighting by Howell Binkley. The dances do not duplicate the effects made by Jerome Robbins in "West Side Story" but they make their points nicely as choregraphed by Sergio Trujillo. Compared to the Bernstein classic in its advertising, the show is really its own special entity as directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks. Can you tell I enjoyed it? I sure hope so.
A Bronx Tale, continues at Proctors, 432 State Street, Albany, NY through October 28. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-346-6204.