Theater Review: A Bronx Tale at Playhouse Square
Vibrant, touching, tuneful and above all, a gift to start summer right. Playhouse Square’s latest Broadway Series musical, A Bronx Tale, feels real and a lot more than just a remix of Jersey Boys, Hairspray and West Side Story (though it does artfully combine appealing aspects of all three). With book by Chazz Palminteri, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater and direction by Jerry Zaks and Robert De Niro (yes, that Robert De Niro) and with choreography by Sergio Trujillo, it’s a winner.
Where to start? First, the story, set in the Bronx. An economical, cleverly designed set by Beowulf Boritt creates an impression of a cityscape. A little boy (the utterly charming Shane Pry as the young Calogero), just hanging out on his street, sees a murderous fight over nothing (a parking space), but the consequences are not what you might expect (such as years dealing with trauma). Things work out well for him. He makes an important friend, gang leader Sonny (the charismatic Joe Barbara). Sonny dubs him “C” and the new name becomes his neighborhood moniker (and protection, via this informal baptism).
Time passes and a young adult version of Calogero (now played by the equally charming Joey Barreiro) worries his bus-driver father (a stalwart Richard H. Blake) and his housewife mother (a loving Michelle Aravena). The lad faces big life choices: shall he stay as an aspiring top dog in a tough neighborhood or shall he go and see where his talents take him?
The story is kinda true, in that it’s based on Palminteri’s childhood and youth and his experiences growing up in the Bronx. It is this that seems to give it more heart than the above-mentioned musicals (though there’s truth in them too). Yes, it’s sentimental, but times like these (maybe in all times), it’s good to see a strong father/son relationship. And that one Bronx boy (Calogero) has two guys (his father and the neighborhood boss) looking out for him makes it even better.
There’s also forbidden young love when schoolgirl Jane (a sweetly innocent Brianna-Marie Bell) falls for Calogero (and vice versa). That the families of both would disapprove doesn’t matter to the young ones as they sing “Out of Your Head” and dare to date. Things happen after that — of course, but not quite as bad as in West Side Story.
But now let’s talk about the music and the dancing. The composer sprinkles little treats for 1960s-style music fans throughout the story. Numbers from era favorites (why choose only one?) shine as the exuberant, talented principals and ensemble members shuffle, bounce and swing, as the story calls for, to Motown, rhythm & blues, rock & roll and romantic crooner standards. They all seem close enough to the originals to make us think we recognize the songs (but we don’t).
The score should probably get listed as part of the cast. It’s essential to mood and scene. Every melody and rhythm has a reason. For example, a doo-wop quartet opens the first act with “Belmont Avenue” and makes it clear it’s the “cool kids” in an Italian-American enclave. A few minutes later, Pry’s Little “C” steals our hearts when he cuts loose and dances in near-perfect synch with neighborhood teens, hoods, characters — everyone — in “I Like It.” When the second act opens with the groovy “Webster Avenue,” we know the story has moved a few blocks over to the African-American neighborhood and the moves fit the feelings.
BOTTOM LINE: It was not the rehash I expected from the promos.. There was heart (OK, Broadway Musical style “heart,” but it felt reality-based). A Bronx Tale blends old styles and motifs into a delicious concoction celebrating life as one person remembers it. It makes me think of all the stories Cleveland has yet to tell. Recommended without reservation (unless you just hate all popular music–and I mean all.)