By Morgan Politzer
As the lights rise over the Bronx on the stage of the National Theatre in Washington D.C., audiences are treated to two conflicting, yet wonderfully complementary sounds: the thick accent of a 1960s New York mob boss, and the sweet sounds of a well-rehearsed, perfectly-pitched, theatre a capella boy band.
Directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, “A Bronx Tale” is based on Chazz Palminteri’s 1989 solo show on Broadway. In 2007, Palminteri and De Niro starred in a movie adaptation of the autobiographical play, eventually turning it into a rock ’n’ roll/doo-wop musical to tell story of Calogero and his life growing up in The Bronx.
Somewhat obviously, the score is perhaps the most important part of a successful musical. With music by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, “A Bronx Tale” manages to combine classic musical theatre melodies with 1960s R&B for a new, fresh sound not often heard on stage. There is little surprise here, as Menken (thankfully) seems to have a hand in most musicals these days, including classics like “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Newsies.” He gained critical acclaim for his work on animated Disney films, including “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” all of which have since become wildly successful Broadway musicals.
But no brilliant score would be complete without an impeccably talented cast to sing it. Joey Barreiro immediately holds the stage in the palm of his hand as his character Calogero serves as narrator, spinning tales of his childhood and the world of old New York Italian families. Doo-Wop Guys slink onto the stage in tight pants and tight t-shirts with biceps a-rippling while they smooth back already greased-up hair, closely followed by girls with high-waisted pants, bumped-up bangs, and a take-no-crap attitude in the delicious opening number “Belmont Avenue.”
With fast paced kicks and flicks, extravagant lifts and teasing, playful kisses, “Belmont Avenue” is everything you could want in a flashy opening number, made all the better by the appearance of the darling Young Calogero (Frankie Leoni).
The scene ends with a bang, quite literally, as Young Calogero witnesses a gruesome shooting committed by Sonny (Joey Calveri in for Joe Barbara), the neighborhood’s most dangerous and vengeful boss. Calogero, fearing retribution, lies to police and refuses to identify the shooter. Grateful for Calogero’s loyalty, Sonny takes him under his wing and slowly introduces him to the opulent world of the old Italian families in the toe-tapping number “Roll ’Em.” Calveri shines as he sings with a voice like ribbons of smooth caramel and all the swagger and confidence of an untouchable mob boss.
As Calogero grows up running errands for Sonny and in awe of his newfound hero, Calogero’s father Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) grows uneasy and fears he is losing his kind-hearted son. As Calogero becomes a teenager and teeters on the edge of a moral cliff, Sonny and Lorenzo each grapple fight with his conscience in an attempt to bring him back to where they think he belongs.
Act I ends with a heart-wrenchingly beautiful performance from Blake in the final number “These Streets.” It is here that the highest compliments must be given to choreographer Sergio Trujillo and associate choreographer Marc Kimelman for their brilliant staging and use of space, marking a clear difference between Calogero’s loving parents and the aggressive mobsters circling Barreiro like hungry sharks.
Act II opens as all good musicals should – with a glorious powerhouse vocal moment, this time for Brianna-Marie Bell as Jane, a black girl from the other side of town. In spite of their dueling families (think West Side Story), Calogero and Jane effortless flirt back and forth with the smooth-talking lovable-ness of a first crush. As Barreiro joins Bell onstage for “Webster Avenue,” he proves he is more than just a pretty face with a cluster of deeper, jazzy, raspy notes.
Building on the momentum of the first half of the show, the full company number “Hurt Someone” is full of edge-of-your-seat energy and angsty boy band harmonies that (almost) make you forget the two neighborhoods are ready to engage in an angry, violent turf war. And then as quickly as that final emotional oomph! announces its presence, that moment of breathless anticipation fades away, leaving behind a step-touching, finger-snapping, harmonized ballad of love and triumph.
As the fast paced production rages on full steam ahead, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt’s slender sets effortlessly take their place on stage. The elegant period pieces and well-designed storefronts add to the production value by maintaining a level of simplicity, allowing the actors and the music to take center stage.
“A Bronx Tale” is undoubtedly full of familiar sentimental patterns. But it’s a musical — it’s supposed to have these mushy sentiments. With a cast that is largely fresh off of the Broadway production, it captures the essence of why we continue to go to the theater, winning us over with humor, love, and a whole lot of heart.
A Bronx Tale ran at the National Theatre in Washington DC through March 31.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Joan Marcus.
Morgan Politzer is a junior journalism major and can be reached at email@example.com.