Thursday, March 14, 2019

All That Chazz (by Proxy): It Isn't One of the Great Ones, but 'A Bronx Tale' Musical Well-Merits a Cheer -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Bronx Tale
the musical
Nederlander Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 24

Like many, I imagine, I first heard of A Bronx Tale as a movie, written by and starring Chazz Palminteri, co-starring and directed by Robert De Niro--his first directorial effort--and released in 1993.

The story was actually first created a few years earlier as a one-man play by and starring Palminteri; it played in Los Angeles and Off- Broadway, leading to the film adaptation.

Palminteri--who also enjoyed Hollywood success in Bullets Over Broadway and The Usual Suspects, among others--brought the play to Broadway as a starring vehicle in 2007, followed by a National Tour, which I saw in Chicago in 2009.

By the time A Bronx Tale was adapted into a musical and hit Broadway in late 2016, I found myself dubious about how many iterations the material needed.

And though the musical had a nice Broadway run through the end of last year, my expectations upon entering the Nederlander Theatre Tuesday night in Chicago were rather muted, even in giving the Original Cast Album a few listens.

But with a fine score by Alan Mencken--who's composed many a Disney film--lyrics by Glenn Slater, the book credited to Palminteri (who isn't on hand) and direction, somewhat interestingly, by De Niro and Broadway vet Jerry Zaks, as a musical A Bronx Tale made for an enjoyable evening of entertainment.

No, in referencing one of its better songs, the show isn't "One of the Great Ones," but it's more than solid.

Beowulf Boritt's fine set brings us to Belmont Avenue and 187th Street in the Bronx in the 1960s, where Calogero--which is Palminteri's real first name--lives with his mom and dad in the heavily Italian-American enclave.

Playing Calogero as a young adult, a fine Joey Barriero serves as the narrator, while Frankie Leoni embodies the same role as a younger kid.

Through a quick series of events, Calogero catches the favor of the community's ranking mobster, Sonny (Joe Barbara, reprising the role he originated on Broadway), which causes friction with the kid's bus-driving dad, Lorenzo (normally Richard H. Blake, also part of the original Broadway cast, but on Night 1 in Chicago, Mike Backes handled the role).

"Belmont Avenue" sets the stage as a fine opening number, while "Look to Your Heart" follows with Lorenzo imparting wisdom to young Calogero, who soon leads, "I Like It" about his newfound respect in the neighborhood.

All the singing voices are strong, particularly Barriero's and Barbara's, the latter standing out on the glib "Nicky Machiavelli" and the shrewd, "One of the Great Ones."

Interweaving with the storyline about Calogero becoming involved with Sonny's crew is one where he is smitten by an African-American classmate named Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell) at a time when even his friends are grossly intolerant.

Also meriting mention is Michelle Aravena as Calogero's mom, Rosina.

Even with an intermission, A Bronx Tale barely reaches two hours, so is one of the shorter two-act musicals you'll ever see.

With little non-sung dialogue, it is nicely paced, and the songs are strong enough to justify this material being turned into a musical.

Although this really should be true of any musical, A Bronx Tale feels like a show suited for wives bringing their husbands along, and not having them grumble.

But while it's certainly not unwelcome in moving along quite quickly, a few narrative weaknesses make this musical feel as though it's comfortable not quite being one for the ages.

Discord between Calogero and his dad over both the friendship with Sonny and the relationship with Jane feels like it never really plays out to a boiling point, and it seems like Rosina gets rather little stage time (though Aravena nicely handles the "Look to Your Heart" reprise in Act II). Other aspects also seem a tad curt.

As I tried to explain to my Uber driver on the way home--whose musical theater knowledge seemed pretty much limited to West Side Story, and even then just barely--A Bronx Tale just isn't as brilliant a show as Hamilton, nor Dear Evan Hansen, which it is following at the Nederlander (long known as the Oriental).

There really isn't anything groundbreaking or earth-shattering here.

But as a new musical included in my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, it turned out to be an unexpected pleasure.

Not every show can be the very best, but if it's robustly entertaining, that's good enough for me, especially on a random Tuesday night in March.

And even though it's not one of the great ones, as a musical--like as a play and movie--A Bronx Tale does itself more than proud. 

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