Theater review: Spot-on 1960s sound sets the stage for jam-packed 'Bronx Tale' musical

  • Sonny (Joe Barbara) teaches Young Calogero (Frankie Leoni) how to play craps in the national tour of "A Bronx Tale," now at Chicago's Nederlander Theatre through Sunday, March 24.

    Sonny (Joe Barbara) teaches Young Calogero (Frankie Leoni) how to play craps in the national tour of "A Bronx Tale," now at Chicago's Nederlander Theatre through Sunday, March 24. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake), right, gives Young Calogero (Frankie Leoni) perspective on baseball and how to live life in "A Bronx Tale."

    Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake), right, gives Young Calogero (Frankie Leoni) perspective on baseball and how to live life in "A Bronx Tale." Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • The ensemble of "A Bronx Tale" performs the opening number "Belmont Avenue." The national tour of the 2016 Broadway musical continues at the Nederlander Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, March 24.

    The ensemble of "A Bronx Tale" performs the opening number "Belmont Avenue." The national tour of the 2016 Broadway musical continues at the Nederlander Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, March 24. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

 
 
Updated 3/15/2019 6:18 AM

"A Bronx Tale" -- ★ ★

Chazz Palminteri's "A Bronx Tale" has had one heck of a metamorphosis.

 

"A Bronx Tale The Musical" is now making its national touring debut at Chicago's Nederlander Theatre. But the Academy Award-nominated actor and writer's autobiographical story of growing up in a heavily Italian-American neighborhood in 1960s New York originally started out small-scale.

"A Bronx Tale" debuted in 1989 as a one-man play that Palminteri eventually took to Broadway in 2007. A much-admired 1993 film of "A Bronx Tale" marked the screen directing debut of actor Robert De Niro.

Younger Calogero (Frankie Leoni), center, is consoled by his father, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake), and mother, Rosina (Michelle Aravena), after he witnesses a shooting in the street in "A Bronx Tale." The national tour of the 2016 Broadway musical continues at Chicago's Nederlander Theatre through Sunday, March 24.
Younger Calogero (Frankie Leoni), center, is consoled by his father, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake), and mother, Rosina (Michelle Aravena), after he witnesses a shooting in the street in "A Bronx Tale." The national tour of the 2016 Broadway musical continues at Chicago's Nederlander Theatre through Sunday, March 24. - Courtesy of Joan Marcus

And then in 2016, a musical version made it to Broadway with many talented heavy-hitters attached.

While not their best work, composer Alan Menken ("Little Shop of Horrors," "Beauty and the Beast") and lyricist Glenn Slater ("School of Rock," "Sister Act") serve up a spot-on sounding 1960s score that perfectly suits the era and setting of "A Bronx Tale." And "A Bronx Tale" as a musical can't be faulted with its staging. Sergio Trujillo provides good energetic bursts of choreography, while the co-direction by Tony Award-winner Jerry Zaks and Robert De Niro (!) is fluid and always focused.

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It's clear that the whole creative team put a lot of time and care into infusing song and dance into Palminteri's compelling coming-of-age story. Yet "A Bronx Tale" doesn't completely make a case for itself as a musical.

Rosina (Michelle Aravena) and Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) worry about the influence of Sonny on their son, Calogero, in the national tour of the Broadway musical "A Bronx Tale," now at Chicago's Nederlander Theatre through Sunday, March 24.
Rosina (Michelle Aravena) and Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) worry about the influence of Sonny on their son, Calogero, in the national tour of the Broadway musical "A Bronx Tale," now at Chicago's Nederlander Theatre through Sunday, March 24. - Courtesy of Joan Marcus

"A Bronx Tale" focuses mainly on "Calogero" (Joey Barreiro). He functions both as a narrator looking back on his youth (Frankie Leoni and Shane Pry alternate as the 9-year-old Young Calogero in 1960) and then as an active character while as a teenager in 1968.

The main crux of "A Bronx Tale" shows how a flashy local Mafia boss named Sonny (Joe Barbara) takes Calogero under his wing. That's much to the chagrin of Calogero's honest and hardworking parents, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) and Rosina (Michelle Aravena).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But the main problem with "A Bronx Tale" as a musical is that it is overstuffed. A number of plot points (father-figure fights, inter-gang group dynamics, neighborhood racial tensions, interracial romance) all could garner a slew of separate musicals in their own right.

Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell), center, joins with Tyrone (Antonio Beverly), left, Denise (Ashley McManus), Frieda (Brandi Porter) and Jesse (Jason Williams) to sing about their "Webster Avenue" neighborhood in "A Bronx Tale."
Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell), center, joins with Tyrone (Antonio Beverly), left, Denise (Ashley McManus), Frieda (Brandi Porter) and Jesse (Jason Williams) to sing about their "Webster Avenue" neighborhood in "A Bronx Tale." - Courtesy of Joan Marcus

And then there's the crowded cast of colorful characters. A lot of these wiseguys can easily recede into the background when mentioned in passing in a monologue or seen fleetingly on-screen.

But once you make a point of introducing so many amusing supporting characters onstage (especially a second time around in a hilarious mug shot sequence), you can picture them offstage complaining that they're not getting a fair shake in the story.

Sonny (Joe Barbara), left, gives Calogero (Joey Barreiro) some advice on dating women in the Broadway musical "A Bronx Tale," on stage now through Sunday, March 24 at Chicago's Nederlander Theatre.
Sonny (Joe Barbara), left, gives Calogero (Joey Barreiro) some advice on dating women in the Broadway musical "A Bronx Tale," on stage now through Sunday, March 24 at Chicago's Nederlander Theatre. - Courtesy of Joan Marcus

All of this makes for a speedy show where the supporting characters don't always get the complexity that they deserve. For example, Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell) mainly functions as a controversial love interest for Calogero rather than being a fully realized person in her own right.

Yet even with Palminteri's sometimes sketchily adapted script, the cast all turn out vivid and distinct performances when possible.

There's no denying the amazing life story that Palminteri shares via his "A Bronx Tale." And though this musical adaptation certainly captures many great details of a distinct time and place, sometimes there is just too much going on for the show's own good.

• • •

Location: Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (also March 17), 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (also March 20), through March 24

Running time: About two hours and 5 minutes with an intermission

Tickets: $23.50-$156.50

Parking: Area pay garages and limited street parking

Rating: Profanity, violence and many vintage epithets for Italians and African-Americans

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