There, center stage, stands the handsome Bobby Thornton making his Broadway debut in A Bronx Tale, a new musical by Chazz Palminteri (book), Alan Menken (music), and Glenn Slater (lyrics). Playing the lead role, Calogero, he holds our attention like a Broadway pro. Performing the opening number, “Belmont Avenue”, he not only captivates us with his gorgeous voice and his handsome physique and presence, but also, sets the mood and the style of this well done show. It’s a sweet start for this new musical which is based on the autobiographical 1990 one man show by Palminteri, and co-directed by the legendary actor Robert De Niro (who also starred as the father in the 1993 movie version of the play) and veteran Broadway musical director, Jerry Zaks. It’s a solid set up for what’s to come.
The adult Calogero begins by introducing us to his younger innocent self, growing up in the Italian neighborhood in the 1960’s Bronx. Young Calogero, played with an effervescent charm and energy by Hudson Loverro, does not disappoint, rocking the house with his electrifying number, “I Like It”, and you will too. The young Calogero finds himself pulled between the love of a picture perfect father and family, and the charming and dangerously exciting mafia boss, Sonny (Nick Cordero of Bullets Over Broadway fame). The father and son moments couldn’t be more moving and sincere, exemplified in a sappy but sweet number, “Look to Your Heart” while playing catch on the boardwalk. We all know it’s a battle that the father, Lorenzo, beautifully played by Richard H. Blake (Jersey Boys, Wicked) can never win. Even though he embodies everything a-bronx-tale-musicala father should be in these kinds of romantic memoirs; strong, brave, handsome, and caring; he is no match for the charisma and power that Sonny exudes. It’s just a matter of time before Calogero, now renamed “C” by Sonny, replaces his real and true father with the surrogate. And we can’t blame him. Cordero delivers a spot on performance as the neighborhood mafia boss, balancing the stereotype with a real man. He’s too good to be true, we know that, but Cordero convinces us that he is the real thing, and can be trusted with C’s future.
Eight years have passed by, and we find C thoroughly enmeshed in Sonny’s world, even though it runs completely against his own father’s demands. Then, as if out of a Shakespearian play, in walks Jane (a beautiful voiced Ariana Debose), an African American girl who lives just a few blocks away, but from a whole different world. An Italian guy and a black woman, dating, in the Bronx in 1960 is not going to go unnoticed by either side of that aisle, and despite high level of racial tension between Italian Americans and African Americans, C arranges a date with Jane. We all know that it’s only a matter of time before a collision of sorts happens. Debose is charming and sweetly courageous in the number, “Out of Your Head” as both C and she grapple with their next move. These two gifted performers give us all kinds of reasons to cheer them on, even with this lukewarm song, but we all know it won’t be enough.
Act II opens with the fun and lively song, “Webster Avenue” performed wonderfully by Jane and friends (https://youtu.be/YVeEPb8tdiM), paralleling the show’s opener. Tyron (Bradley Gibson) and Jesse (Gilbert L. Bailey II) valiantly do the same with the Act II reprise, “Ain’t It the Truth”, a song previously performed by the Italian gang of Calogero, Nicky the Mook (Rory Max Kaplan), Crazy Mario (Dominic Nolfi), and Slick (Keith White) in Act I. All these actors are great, singing and dancing up a storm, and giving us a totally solid show. This solidness is maybe the only complaint I have with this show. It is so well done, a total professional piece of musical theatre, but somewhere along the way it fails to be something special. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy myself at any given moment, but I was never swept away. The Romeo and Juliet story line dissipates without much of a pang on our heart. We barely get enough of Debose before she and the love story vanishes, leaving us wanting much more of that gorgeous voice. Where is that beautiful love song that could make us want to invest more in their love? Jane deserved a much better song to showcase her voice and invest emotionally in their romance beyond a reprise of “Out of Your Head”.
The Menkin sound we have grown accustomed to is all here, giving us a bit of Little Shop of Horror do-wop with a bit of Newsies male bonding, but much of the wit seems to be missing from Slater’s lyrics. There doesn’t seem to be any stand out numbers and Act II is full of reprises where a new song may have furthered the storyline or more deeply developed the emotional lives of the characters. Numerous songs came close to being great, but most end up being just solid or ‘good’. Oddly enough, it’s Sonny that gets the love song, “One of the Great Ones” that pulls the story away from the young lovers and back to the main focus of this story. It is truly one of the shows strongest songs. Which I guess in the end is what this musical is all about. It’s about male/father/son bonding, and not about star crossed lovers. It’s about Calogero and his two fathers, one real and one fantastical and exciting. And in that regard, the actors succeed in winning us over. In the end, this new musical won’t redefine or surprise you. You won’t leave with it embedded in your memory, but you will be entertained and you will find that you have enjoyed this well crafted ride. A Bronx Tale is more like Lorenzo, the true father; solid and dependable. It isn’t as exciting as Sonny, nor the most inspiring, but it won’t let you down either. Just the way we would want a good father to be.
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Look for Suzanna Bowling and David Spencer’s reviews