Book by Chazz Palminteri, Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“I went out into the world and I kept my/promise. I became somebody. I owed that to my/parents and to Sonny.” – Cologero
The ingredients: a wonderful story of redemption by Chazz Palminteri; an outstanding cast; two (not one) directors with keen senses of staging (Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks); captivating music by Alan Menken; engaging lyrics by Glenn Slater; a brilliant creative team; the Doo Wop of “Jersey Boys” with the underbelly of “West Side Story;” and energetic choreography by Sergio Trujillo. The result: the stunning new musical currently running at the Imperial Theatre that combines realism with just the right amount of moral ambiguity and rich enduring questions to make a delicious theatrical event worth seeing once if not twice.
Some might find Mr. Palminteri’s challenging story of the young Calogero (played with a wisdom well beyond his years by Hudson Loverro) disturbing. In 1960 he witnesses a murder at the steps of his family’s Belmont Avenue home and unwittingly becomes involved with “family” member Sonny (played with a charming ambivalence by Nick Cordero) and Sonny’s extended family of organized crime. Calogero’s friendship with Sonny lasts until 1968 – the “present” in his compelling Bronx tale of coming of age. However, without this morally ambiguous background there would be no room for the older Calogero’s (played with a vulnerable charm by Bobby Conte Thornton) existential crisis and need to examine carefully his life choices as an adult.
Should he stay in the Bronx or should he “get out?” Should he continue to listen to Sonny or to his estranged father? Calogero’s choices are complicated by his loyalty to his own family – his mother Rosina (played with an understanding and forgiving spirit by Lucia Giannetta) and working class father Lorenzo (played with a sternness diluted by brokenness by Richard H. Blake) – and his unexpected love interest Jane (played with a rich vulnerability and grace by Ariana Debose) who lives on Webster Avenue. Jane is black. Cologero is white and Italian. The residents of the two neighborhoods do not mix and hold deep unrelenting hatred toward one another based on deep-seated racism. This hatred often boils over into violence when the residents of Webster Avenue attempt to visit Belmont Avenue.
The themes inherent in “A Bronx Tale” could not be more relevant in this post-Presidential-Election time. With hate crimes, bullying, and racism on the upswing in urban (and other) regions and the dogged increase in supremist hate speech, our nation needs a time of self-reflection and decision making. The organized crime present in “A Bronx Tale” is a remarkable trope for the systemic rise in privilege in corporate and government institutions.
Mr. De Niro and Mr. Zaks provide rich direction to the ensemble cast and keep the action moving forward at an appropriate pace. The realistic conflicts of each character drive a believable plot full of wonderful dramatic surprises that give the story interesting twists and turns. When Jane’s brother Tyrone (played with integrity that challenges conformity by Bradley Gibson) and his friends challenge the turf of the young men on Belmont Avenue and then lies to Jane about Calogero’s attempt to rescue him, the audience prepares itself for yet another intriguing subplot.
The musical numbers enrich the development of the plot and are uniformly performed with sensitivity and authenticity by the cast. Standing out are: “Look to Your Heart” (Lorenzo and Calogero); Sonny’s “One of the Great Ones;” “In a World Like This (Calogero, Jane, and the Ensemble); and the Company’s closing “The Choices We Make.”
Salvation sometimes comes in surprising ways from equally surprising places. “A Bronx Tale” encourages each audience member to look for redemption and accept it with grace and thanksgiving from whatever its source.