Originally inspired as a one-man show circa 1989 off-Broadway, the gritty “A Bronx Tale” served as an autobiographical look at on-screen legend Chazz Palminteri’s upbringing. The production was turned into a successful film adaptation a few years later which co-starred Palminteri and was directed by Robert De Niro. That’s good company to be in business with and though it seems like the movie has come and gone from the pathos of great cinema, “A Bronx Tale” gets enough chatter in certain circles that inspired Palminteri (book) - with the help of Alan Menkin (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) - to stretch the narrative, subplots, and characters into a feature length two act musical.
Running a crisp two hours and ten minutes (with intermission!) the Broadway tour which held its Michigan premiere Tuesday night, isn’t the worst way to spend an evening. It more or less checks the boxes of a decent musical without the emotional heft or gravitas of its peers (think “Come From Away”). “Bronx” ran for 700 performances in NYC and is now making its rounds across the country, and the cast and tour direction seem to pull any weight they can from a book that uses every mobster cliche in the book. You can tell that Palminteri tries to justify certain characters (namely the African Americans or the thankless love interest) and instead detours into a spat of redundancy: we understand this is “A Bronx Tale” (as the characters repeatedly sing over and over) but underneath all the heavy stylized song ballads, there’s little warmth.
Set in the 1960s, “A Bronx Tale” opens with Calogero (Alec Nevin going full Brooklynese) under a streetlamp near his home turf of Belmont Ave recounting the tribulations of his childhood. His pops Lorenzo (2015 “American Idol” winner Nick Fradiani) touts the importance of punching a clock every day and not being corrupted by local thugs, he’s an honest worker and he expects his son to follow suit. Flashback to Calogero at age nine (Trey Murphy) when he witnesses a murder in cold blood by the hands of local mob kingpin Sonny (Jeff Brooks) and nothing was ever the same.
After Calogero refuses to narc on Sonny, the big-shot decides to throw the tyke under his wing with a new nickname “C” and soon thereafter slowly rises the ranks in Sonny’s empire. Along for the ride are a slew of wacky and painfully dull and stereotypical sidekicks like Frankie Coffeecake (Mark Sipell) - who got the nickname on account of his face being filled with acne and JoJo the Whale (Nathan Wright) who is so fat his shadow killed a dog. You get the idea.
For C, finally having a place to fit in causes tension with his dad who can’t look past the corruption Sonny radiates. Eventually a side has to be chosen: does C stick with the moral high ground and make an honest living and maybe go to school? Or side with the streetwise mobsters who can offer him protection and money beyond his wildest dreams? The answer will be fairly obvious within the first thirty minutes.
Whereas the first act basically settles this mano-a-mano showdown between Lorenzo and C, it leaves Act Two to introduce a forced love interest named Jane (Kayla Jenerson) and a few too many subplots to fill out the remainder of the show. For starters, Jane is a colored girl working at a local record store and C falls madly in love with her. But the kind of pressure an interaccial couple would actually face in the 1960s’ (especially in New York) is barely touched upon in “A Bronx Tale.” It’s the type of juicy meat and potatoes romance that can fuel an entire second act and I wish the writers would have leaned into this more. Nevin and Jenerson are blessed with remarkable on stage chemistry, but I would be lying if I told you I genuinely felt invested in their relationship. The coming-of-age message about respect and understanding your place in this world gets more of the spotlight, but thankfully songs like “One of the Great Ones” propel things forward. At the same time, you could find yourself conflicted rooting for C who seems to show little to no remorse for the crimes he commits.
That being said, the scripts shortcomings are of no fault of the performers who truly move mountains to pull some gripping moments. The best scenes are the intimate two hander sequences where there isn’t some busty comic relief oozing from the sides. A moment or two that has young C with his pops talking about the importance of honest work is heart wrenching. You’ll see those scenes again as C “gets older” but considering Fradiani and Nevin are similar in age, it’s hard to believe their relationship.
Brooks gets tons of mileage out of Sonny - the character Palmantarri portrayed in the film - and he’s got an edge to him that’s hard to pinpoint. In the first five minutes we see this guy ruthlessly murder someone over a parking spot and then he’s like a teddy bear. But the way he’s portrayed here by Brooks makes him someone worth taking an interest in. You can tell he really cares about Calogero by the way he treats him, and so this becomes the main crux for “A Bronx Tale” and it’s the one relationship that actually works in this convoluted musical.
Scenic work by Beowulf Boritt complement a true urban feel of the 1960s, complete with uncluttered street corners and a stenciled backdrop, and makes it easy for the audience to dial into the era of Mickey Mantle. And though “A Bronx Tale” isn’t a dance heavy show in the slightest, you need to have a cast that looks good, has swagger, and can move with confidence which choreographer Brittany Conigatti has pulled together alongside David Aaron Brown’s taunt musical direction.
It’s best practice to understand that “A Bronx Tale” provides nothing groundbreaking in the world of musical theater, but that doesn’t hinder the overall experience. There’s a fair amount of infectious tunes that stick with you after the curtain falls, which combined with a crop of commendable performers, should keep audiences from falling asleep with the fishes.
A BRONX TALE runs through Feb 2nd at The Fisher Theatre as part of the Broadway in Detroit series. Tickets start at $39 and can be purchased via Ticketmaster.