Just in time for the holidays comes a heartwarming mash-up of Jersey Boys and West Side Story topped off with a garnish of Grease and a side in the shape of a super cute kid. The new musical version of Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale is a crowd-pleasing nostalgic coming-of-age story with a welcome dose of racial tolerance just right for our times.
Set in the 1960’s, the show opens in the heart of the Bronx on the corner of Belmont Avenue and 187th St–clearly marked on a signpost center stage–and the first musical number starts with a crooning doo-wop number about the avenue. Here we find 9-year-old Calogero, a naïve Italian-American kid hungry for the street life his straight-laced bus driver father eschews. It’s a big part for a child and Hudson Loverro nails the role with his eager eyes and winning dance moves.
Bobby Conte Thornton (making his Broadway debut with a twinkling charm that promises a bright future) plays the older version of Calogero. His childhood innocence is soon shattered however, during his first violent encounter with Sonny, the local gang boss (the gangly, charismatic Nick Cordero in shiny suits and slicked back hair).
Sonny has a comic band of hoodlums. They steal the scene with their buffoonery and slapstick when Sonny shuts them in a tiny bathroom to prevent them from interfering with his dice game.
Contact with Sonny begins Calogero’s fascination with the seedier side of his Bronx neighborhood. If the tale sounds familiar, Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical play of the same name has already enjoyed success Off-Broadway in 1989, on Broadway in 2007, and was adapted for the screen in 1993. Palminteri writes the book of the musical with Alan Menken and Glenn Slater providing music and lyrics, respectively.
The movie starred Robert De Niro among others and here he makes his Broadway directing debut in partnership with Broadway vet Jerry Zaks. The direction plays it fairly safe but confidently establishes a warm retro approach.
So what about the music? That promising acapella song from the opening is cut short but there’s plenty of other music to enjoy with early rock n’ roll and Motown influences–including a rousing number sung by Calogero called “I Like It” which brings verve to his character, now a sassy gang mascot to Sonny.
A later highlight is the wistful anthem to wonderful women, “One of the Great Ones” sung by Sonny. This song is inspired by a now grown-up Calogero’s confession that he’s fallen for a high-school classmate Jane–the only snag is she’s African-American. The powerful Ariana Debose as Jane is a mesmerizing presence but her part leaves her and the audience short-changed, as she never really gets a full-on, stand-out musical number of her own. And those seeking a happy ending will also be disappointed. A Bronx Tale doesn’t neatly correct the world’s wrongs despite Calogero’s yearning to break his neighborhood’s racial taboos.
The neighborhood becomes its own character here with a lovely set designed by Beowulf Boritt, featuring the skeletons of the local brownstones silhouetted against an almost uniformly red-infused backdrop of hand-drawn buildings. But the Longacre’s stage seems to confine the action. The dance numbers by Sergio Trujillo in particular need more space to breathe.
New Yorkers’ self-regard for their city is mythic and this story further burnishes the city’s image of itself as the greatest place on earth (despite all its faults). And that’s exactly what’s lovable about this show. What will probably guarantee it a long and popular run on Broadway is the nostalgic glow that would appeal to both a tourist audience and also older local theater-goers who remember the New York of this show.