Broadway Review: Plenty of strong moments in uneven ‘Bronx Tale’

Recently, I attended the American Theatre Critics Association conference in New York City, where I saw four Broadway shows for review. The second of my four reviews is “A Bronx Tale” which opened on Dec. 1st, 2016.

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Sonny (Nick Cordero, L) battles with Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) for the affections of Calogero in Broadway’s “A Bronx Tale.” (Photo by Jerry Dalia)

There is a gentle moment where Sonny, the legendary mob boss that handles business in the Bronx, waxes poetic about a woman he once knew. It’s not known who this woman is, but it confirms what Sonny strongly believes – you only get three great women in your life. That’s it. And based on the way he sings that final line, we get a sense that Sonny just might be out of his lot. It’s a moment that has great heart, and one that makes an aloof mobster extremely relatable.

Broadway’s “A Bronx Tale,” running now at the Longacre Theatre does a lot of great things. It certainly capitalizes on the franchise, which started as Chazz Palminteri’s one-man play of the same name, and then became the epic 1993 film directed by Robert De Niro, who also directed this show along with Jerry Zaks. It features a new score by Alan Menken, and has music that does much to capture the feel of the franchise, yet other numbers suffer from a sort of banal stasis.

Sonny (a mostly effective Nick Cordero) is introduced as the order of the neighborhood, an old school Bronx of 1960, where doo wop and stickball were neighborhood pastimes. It’s also a time where enemy lines were clearly defined and not to be crossed.

It’s a lesson that young Calogero (Will Coombs) learns early. When a fight for a parking spot turns deadly, it’s up to Calogero to maintain Sonny’s order on the street. And Calogero responds without having to be taught how to respond – no snitching. A bond is formed between Sonny and Calogero, whom Sonny now calls “C.”

This comes at the expense of Calogero’s own bond with his father Lorenzo (a magnificent turn by Broadway stalwart Richard H. Blake), who dutifully and nobly drives a bus. He makes honest yet meager money while Sonny probably blows his nose in $100 bills earned from the blood of his enemies.

The show covers plenty of ground in Calogero’s upbringing, from a young impressionable boy to the older version, played on this night by an energetic Sam Edgerly. Calogero has to navigate a lot of tenuous ground, and is pulled in multiple directions. There is his loyalty to his best friends, loyalty to the father figure in the form of Sonny, and loyalty to his father, which is more difficult considering Sonny lives a life one could envy. How does one reconcile the glitz of respect (or fear, as Lorenzo reminds his son) that Sonny garners in the neighborhood with the working stiff that is his father. It is here where some of the best lessons are taught. As Lorenzo reminds Calogero with conviction:

“Ir don’t take much strength to pull a trigger but try getting up every morning day after day and work for a living, let’s see him try that, then we’ll see who the real tough guy is, the working man is the tough guy, your father’s the tough guy!”

There are also lessons that come with a great price. Calogero is intrigued with the beautiful young Black student Jane (the lovely dynamo Christiani Pitts). Needless to say, this does not go over well with either side, but Calogero continues to try and stay true to what love is telling him, with some ugly reminders of the destruction of racism lurking around every corner.

As much as I attempted to distance myself from the brilliant film, which I must have seen somewhere south of what feels like a thousand times, it’s not the easiest thing to do. Moments that were some of the most poignant in that medium felt a little flat here, namely a moment such as a fight between the bikers and wise guys inside the bar.

Performances were mostly on point. It takes a bit to get used to Cordero’s Sonny. While he looks the part, a dapper gentleman in a shiny, tailored silver suit and jet-black hair with two tons of gel, his footing felt firmest in act two. While I didn’t get a sense of the driving motivators that informed his Sonny for a bit, his abilities to listen and react strengthened greatly as the play wore on.

Blake is strong as Lorenzo, bringing the house down with a vengeance in the Act II finale “Calogero.” And “Nicky Machiavelli” is quite fun with a snappy choreography by Sergio Trujillo, who is as hot as it gets in the Broadway dance world of late.

In all of the great mafia films, there are colorful characters that help shape the world of the play, and here that is certainly the case, with names like Rudy the Voice (a hilarious Joey Sorge), the unlucky Eddie Mush (Jonathan Brody) and the skin-challenged Frankie Coffeecake (Ted Brunetti).

Menken’s score, along with the lyrics of Glenn Slater have many moments of brilliance, with sublime four-part harmonies under a street lamp which allows the audience to feel the fire that burns underneath the singers’ fingertips. Yet unfortunately, not a lot of those numbers exist in the memorable category. But put it together with a minimally gorgeous set design by Beowulf Boritt and William Ivey Long’s great period costumes, and the play is nicely unified.

“A Bronx Tale” may not be the most original thing that Broadway has running at present, but it certainly feels familiar. And familiar is often a very good thing.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Broadway’s “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
The Word: A score that is not terribly memorable along with the classic semi-autobiographical story makes for a pleasant, but not a transcendent evening of theatre.
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
Running time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
The Longacre Theatre
220 W. 48th St. New York City, NY
Tickets range from $50 – $277
For tickets, call (212) 232-6900 or visit the official website.

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