You gotta love the production concept of A Bronx Tale in its touring version. Show producers, along with directors Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, have clearly attempted to keep as much of the original Broadway design as possible intact, and they’ve taken as many of the Broadway cast as possible on the road. On opening night at Belk Theater, the show looked very much like what I saw at the Longacre Theatre two years ago. It ran almost as smoothly as it did in New York, and the sound was nearly as sharp. When hit shows are booked here for longer runs, critics are often kept away until at least the second night. Tweaking the sound and other niggling details is part of the reason.
The story is very personal to the guy who wrote the book, Chazz Palminteri. He based his Zaks-directed one-man show on his own youthful adventures on Belmont and Webster Avenue. De Niro bought into turning the project into a 1993 movie, in which he co-starred with Palminteri. In a couple of neat switcheroos, De Niro directed and played Chazz’s dad, Lorenzo, instead of the charismatic mobster who imperils – and saves – our hero’s young life.
Palminteri took on that plum role of Sonny, the fearsome mobster kingpin who stands watch over Belmont Avenue, leaving the role of Calogero – Chazz’s original first name – to a greener actor.
So there’s a rich family feel that lingers in the musical version of this autobiographical 1960s tale – and I mean family with Godfather connotations. Calogero’s dad is a straight-arrow bus driver, but he understands the Italian-style street realities of his shambling neighborhood. When Sonny calmly guns down a less polished thug in cold blood, just a few yards away from Calogero’s front stoop, Lorenzo tries to shield his son from being dragged down by the police to identify the killer in a lineup.
The scene is tense when Sonny and Calogero come eye-to-eye at the police station. But seemingly by osmosis, the 9-year-old kid knows the score: there is nothing lower on the streets of the Bronx than a snitch. Cool, stolid and terrifying as he is, Sonny will not forget a favor, generous in his gratitude beyond Calogero’s dreams – and way beyond Lorenzo’s comfort level. The one scene where Sonny and Lorenzo actually confront one another absolutely sizzles.
Both of these men have strength and wisdom, and each of them has a lasting influence on Calogero, or C, as the imperious Sonny prefers to call him. “You done a good thing for a bad man,” Lorenzo tells his son after they return from the life-changing lineup scene. Yet it isn’t until deep in Act 2, when justice is meted out by the street instead of the police, that some in the audience will realize that Dad has a deeper wisdom and a deeper understanding of how Bronx justice works.
Sonny will teach us how power works in the “Nicky Machiavelli” showstopper, aided by his colorful henchmen, Rudy the Voice, Eddie Mush, Frankie Coffeecake, Tony 10 to 2, and JoJo the Whale. Very subtly, Sonny also lets us infer the secret of his sangfroid when a true answer from the 9-year-old C at the police lineup might have ended in a long, long stretch in jail. Sonny tells C that he had read his Machiavelli while doing some prison time in the past. If you want to get ahead in life, you take advantage of such opportunities. And if you take up crime as a career, you look at prison as a business expense.
The only time Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design malfunctioned was when a scrim was supposed to rise as Calogero was asking pretty black coed Jane out on a date, knowing that he was bridging the racial divide between Belmont and Webster. Here we will get a neat twist when Dad opposes his son’s dating Jane, who is showing some moxie of her own in encouraging Calogero. The worldlier Sonny not only condones C’s initiative, he gives his protégé some clever advice on testing a woman’s mettle – then tosses him the keys to his swank car. For couples watching this show on a date night, this “One of the Great Ones” scene, with its cool Sinatra swagger, will be Sonny’s most memorable showstopper.
Perhaps emblematic of Lorenzo’s more durable lunch-pail values, Richard H. Blake is one of the original cast members that I saw at the Longacre in 2017. He makes a finer impression than ever in the “Look in Your Heart” episode, even if the Alan Menken-Glenn Slater song is interchangeable with at least 30 other Broadway tunes, and his bravery in the “Giving Back the Money” scene is obviously enhanced by his understanding of the risk he’s taking for the sake of keeping his son straight.
Joey Barbeiro as Calogero and Brianna-Marie Bell as Jane haven’t dialed up their chemistry as much as they could, nor does Palminteri underscore the larger significance of their association from their perspective. Is it enough that his book shows the two teens resisting pressures from family and friends? Maybe not in a show that runs 100 minutes and could easily have jettisoned its intermission.
Bell, a replacement cast member on Broadway, does her best acting work dealing with her schoolmates and her brother, a gang member who gets roughed-up on Calogero’s turf. But if Slater’s namby-pamby lyrics don’t give her much of a chance to distinguish herself on “Out of Your Head” or “Webster Avenue,” Menken’s music certainly lets us sample the firepower in Bell’s voice. Of course, Barbeiro’s dramatic chops are more extensively featured in multiple heavy scenes with Sonny, Lorenzo, his mom Rosina and his own gang – Handsome Nick, Crazy Mario and Sally Slick. Barbeiro is definitely comfortable with his ongoing narrative chores, and his voice is also conspicuously at a high Broadway level.
Shane Pry, the kid who alternated with Brigg Liberman as Young Calogero on opening night, was ill-served at the soundboard, particularly when he sang. Pry proved far more intelligible when he spoke, had very appealing energy, and was a great match physically for Barbeiro, the Calogero he would grow up to be. I was also pleased with Michelle Aravena as Rosina, another Broadway replacement who has hit the road. She reminded me of Bronx matrons I encountered in my early years, frazzled, prematurely old and forever attached to a dish towel.
Maybe the most impressive of the Broadway originals is Joe Barbara as Sonny. Barbara has actually moved up the gangland pecking order on tour, having opened as Carmine, a police officer and a gang leader on Broadway while understudying Nick Cordero, the original Sonny. Not quite as imposing or intimidating as Cordero was on Broadway, Barbara is every bit as calm and confident on tour, making up for his slight meanness and cynicism deficits on his “Machiavelli” showpiece with more musicality and savoir faire on “One of the Great Ones.” Barbara and Chazz himself were the only Broadway replacements for Cordero onstage during the 700-performance run of A Bronx Tale, a heavy family endorsement that our Sonny makes good on.