Time was, when a character uttered a line like “the working man’s a sucker,” you could rest assured you were going to hate his guts. After all, who else but an irredeemable villain could say such a thing! And while, yes, the man who says these words in “A Bronx Tale,” playing now at the Nederlander Theatre, is a gangster, a rogue and a murderer — on this point, he might actually be right.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, when the story is set, this kind of thinking was verboten. But nowadays? Start tweeting, my friend, you’ve got your finger on the pulse!
This isn’t by accident — at least, I don’t think it is. Based on actor Chazz Palminteri’s 1989 one-man show, “A Bronx Tale” the musical is comfortable wearing shades of gray. It’s one of the show’s great strengths, but it’s not strong enough to overcome a weak, forgettable score from “The Little Mermaid” scribe Alan Menken, whose musical wellspring might be well and truly dry. (If you want to see a Menken show in town, try “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Mercury instead.)
‘A Bronx Tale’
When: Through March 24.
Where: James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Run time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, with one intermission
While there are nods toward doo-wop, rock-n-roll, crooner standards and Motown in the “Bronx,” Menken’s music, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, too often defaults to its musical theater factory setting. Some of the songs are so forgettable that, when they’re reprised later on, you might think they’re brand new.
Just like its Italian-American hero, Calogero (played as a child by Frankie Leoni — with alternate Shane Pry — and as a high-schooler by the appealing Joey Barreiro), “A Bronx Tale” moves between worlds and worldviews. Calogero’s father Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) is a stalwart citizen. He works hard driving a New York City bus, doing the best he can to provide for his family. He tries to teach his son the importance of “heart,” as embodied by the pair’s twin Yankee idols: Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.
On the other side of the moral coin lies Sonny (Joe Barbara), a Mafioso who rules over the neighborhood and is, himself, pretty handy with a baseball bat. Sonny hasn’t been onstage two minutes before he shoots a man dead, a shooting that the young Calogero witnesses, then helps cover up. Impressed by the kid’s moxie, Sonny invites Calogero to hang around with his crew, giving him the nickname “C.” When Lorenzo finds out, he is not happy.
Fast-forward eight years, though, and Lorenzo’s attempts to set his son on the straight and narrow have failed. Calogero’s now a street tough who idolizes Sonny like he’s his real dad.
Sonny is a bit more skeptical. He knows the gangster life is a tough road with a sudden end. Like Lorenzo, he wants to see Calogero leave the Bronx and go to college. Meanwhile, Calogero’s most interested in asking his African-American classmate Jane (a superb Brianna-Marie Bell) out on a date. This is tricky, as the tensions between their communities are just now boiling over into violence.
Sonny tells him to follow his heart. Lorenzo … does not. Shades of gray abound.
“A Bronx Tale” is co-directed by Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks and film legend Robert De Niro, who also directed and starred in the 1993 film adaption of Palminteri’s original show. It’s hard to say who between the two of them is responsible for what here, but all signs point to Zaks (who has four Tony Awards) being the head chef.
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo puts in some fine work but nothing too stylistically ambitious. Most of the dance moves spring from the play’s period trappings without ever threatening to transcend them.
The same can be said for the supporting characters, many who sport names like Eddie Mush, JoJo the Whale and Crazy Mario. Beowulf Boritt’s set puts a mid-century touch on Broadway’s scaffolding craze.
While “A Bronx Tale” is comfortable with moral ambiguity, it sometimes struggles with its own tonal fluidity. When Calogero’s street-tough buddies start threatening racial violence, for instance, they do so with a cheery-sounding tune.
And there’s swearing, by the way — quite a lot of it — in addition to one very crass sexual reference. That this patently horrifying advice for how to judge a woman’s character is later followed by some stunningly sound advice from Sonny makes for a nice surprise.
There aren’t enough of those in “A Bronx Tale,” which is a pity. Again, much like Calogero, the show’s smarter than it seems.
Alex Huntsberger is a freelance writer.