By Gus Allen, Guest Contributor
A Bronx Tale has taken an interesting path to its current stage-musical form. It began as an autobiographical one-man stage show written by and starring actor/director Chazz Palminteri in the late 1980s. In 1993, Robert DeNiro scooped up the film rights and directed the movie version starring himself and Palminteri. Twenty-three years later, Alan Menken jumps in, composing original songs with Glenn Staler and helping Palminteri truncate the narrative to fit a Broadway musical. After running on Broadway for close to two years, A Bronx Tale launched its national tour last month and has landed at Durham Performing Arts Center.
For folks expecting a splash of New York excitement, you’re probably going to be let down. The show is not only dark thematically, but also in its presentation. The backdrops are all dark, and the sparse lighting is used mainly to spotlight various dramatic moments. There’s rarely a time where anything or anyone is brightly lit. The single exception to that is a brilliant gag near the beginning of the show introducing some of the Bronx’s ne’er-do-wells via “mugshots.” We get it. The show is going to be dark.
Much of A Bronx Tale is delivered via narration, presented by the lead character Calogero. (I saw the show last night, and I still can’t pronounce it either.) Many of the characters in the show end up calling him C, so I will aptly follow suit. While the young adult version of C tells the story, we are treated to a charming performance by Anthony Gianni as the 9-year-old version of C. Unfortunately, Alec Nevin’s stint as the 17-year old version is a lot flatter than Gianni’s. Nevin has a lovely voice, but not much charisma or sincerity. Jeff Brooks gives a great turn as C’s gangster father-figure Sonny. Surprisingly, as C’s noble, hard-working father, American Idol’s Nick Fradiani delivers the sincerest performance of the night. And Kayla Jenerson gives a lovely, but too brief, portrayal of C’s love interest Jane.
There’s not a lot of audience connection to C since most things go his way through the show. We’re introduced to a Shakespearean Romeo and Juliet conflict at the end of the first act, but for the most part, C’s only struggle is not wanting to heed his father’s advice. It never feels like the stakes are high at all until close to the end. And while those final moments do have a big impact, and might even be shocking to those unfamiliar with Palminteri’s past, or at least the film, sadly, the petition for empathy comes far too late in the game.
The music is also a misfire. Alan Menken should have been the ideal choice as composer of A Bronx Tale, having grown up in NY in the 1960s, the same time frame as the musical. The songs are serviceable but forgettable. Also troubling was the real difficulty in discerning the song lyrics. It might have been that the microphones were not loud enough to be heard clearly over the orchestra, but more likely it was a lack of diction by the cast. I steer toward the latter because with a couple of the singers, I could make out every word (Fradiani and Brooks), but with most of the others, I lost a good deal of the lyrics.
Overall, unless you grew up in the boroughs of New York and were anxious to revisit your past, A Bronx Tale is not a show to go out of your way for.