Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 1, 2016
A Bronx Tale Book by Chazz Palminteri. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Based on the Play by Chazz Palminteri. Direction by Robert de Niro and Jerry Zaks. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Music supervision and arrangements by Ron Melrose. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Gareth Owen. Hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. Makeup design by Anne Ford-Coates. Fight Coordinator Robert Westley. Technical supervision by Hudson Theatrical Associates. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Cast: Nick Cordero, Richard H. Blake, Bobby Conte Thornton, Ariana DeBose, Lucia Giannetta, Bradley Gibson, Hudson Loverro, Michelle Aravena, Gilbert L. Bailey II, Joe Barbara, Michael Barra, Johnathan Brody, Ted Brunetti, Gerald Caesar, Brittany Conigatti, Kaleigh Cronin, Trista Dollison, David Michael Garry, Rory Max Kaplan, Charlie Marcus, Dominic Nolfi, Wonu Ogunfowora, Christiani Pitts, Paul Salvatoriello, Joey Sorge, Athan Spoker, Joseph J. Simeone, Cary Tedder, Kirstin Tucker, Keith White.
Is this bad? Not at all. De Niro teamed up with Jerry Zaks to direct this adaptation, which has a book by Palminteri himself and lyrics by Glenn Slater, and has done the most that could be done to turn a gritty nostalgia trip about growing up in (and out of) the mob into a family-friendly night out. Whether it's what's best for the material did not seem to matter to anyone involved, and thus probably shouldn't matter to you. If you know you want a lot of liquidy doo-wop music, non-threatening fights and fake-looking Molotov cocktails, an aww-inducing love story, and two showy, starry central performances from Bobby Conte Thornton and Nick Cordero, then rest assured that's what you'll get, with nothing else getting in the way.
Thornton is Calogero, a well-meaning New York Italian who as a boy (when he's played by Hudson Loverro or, at certain performances, Athan Sporek) lies himself into the good graces of the Belmont Avenue boss, Sonny (Cordero), who gives the kid work and hope for a future better than that of his bus-driving, blue-collar dad, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake). Calogero doesn't see anything wrong with Sonny's "business," even if he tends to only see one side of it, and thus starts to turn against his parents and toward his miscreant friends. This is a revolution that's only accelerated when he starts crushing on Jane (Ariana DeBose), a girl from forbidden Webster Avenue who'd be perfect except for the fact that she's black. That doesn't go down too well with lots of peopleon both sidesin these parts.
How Colagero is torn between father figures and his own conceptions of racial right and wrong is plenty of material for a story set in two years that straddle the Civil Rights era (1960 and 1968), and in theory it would have some edge, too. But Palminteri's remembrances are pretty rosy as-is (he starred in a revival of the play version back in 2007), already smoothing down much of the inherent sharpness, and once Menken and Slater get their hands on it, there's not much in the way of depth or stakes to get in the way of the Technicolor fun.
Earworm wrangler Menken is in solid form here, which ensures that the songs all sound good (Jonathan Smith's musical direction and Doug Besterman's orchestrations hep out a lot, too), and choreographer Sergio Trujillo has provided some lively dance moves for his energetic cast. But none of it causes your spine to tingle or your eyes to leak. It's not much of a leap from pleasant to basic and eventually banal, and the writers make that full trek. "All the choices we make / Will shape our lives forever, / Even one mistake / Can tear your world apart," runs a typical late lyricthis is not exactly Hammerstein-level insight.
This doesn't leave a lot of room for the actors to move, so most of them stick at a single, safe level throughout. Only Thornton and Cordero buck that trend. The former occupies a comfortable position between smug stolidity and expanding open-mindedness that keeps him likable at every point; the latter forever taunts caricature but always gets the better of it, forcing you to see the humanity within even the tightest, craziest gangster shell. Individually but especially together, they kindle a sense of tangible, uneasy reality that you can hang onto long enough to buy what everyone is selling you.
That's no small achievement, since the design (the scaffold-and-stoop sets are by Beowulf Boritt, the Atlantic City-greasy costumes are by William Ivey Long, and the effusive lights are by Howell Binkley) and particularly De Niro and Zaks's staging are peddling something far faker than Thornton and Cordero. The two leads are trying to immerse you in facts while everyone else wants you to ignore them, and if it's a heavier conflict than anything you'll see on stage, it's still not an ideal one. But if you can be satisfied with this sort of fantastical cityscape, there are far worse ways to burn off a couple of hours than A Bronx Tale.