‘A Bronx Tale’ is a Softened Gangland Experience at Playhouse Square

click to enlarge JOAN MARCUS
Joan Marcus

When you picture 1960s New York City gang life, the image that pops into your head may be that of gambling, fighting and, of course, fedora-wearing, baseball bat-wielding thugs.

Now imagine those same thugs singing showtunes.

Such is the case in the Broadway touring A Bronx Tale at Playhouse Square, a well-performed, entertaining production that tells a softened version of a true-story gangland experience.

A Bronx Tale began as a one-man show written and performed by Chazz Palminteri in 1989. Based on his own childhood, the story follows Calogero, a young Italian-American boy in the Bronx who becomes friends with Sonny, the neighborhood mob boss. Sonny takes Calogero under his wing, much to the dismay of Calogero’s father, Lorenzo, a hard-working man who tried to establish honest values within his son.

As Calogero grows older and begins a controversial relationship with an African-American woman, Jane, he must decide whether to continue on his criminal path or to become an honest man.

Robert De Niro saw Palminteri’s play in 1990 and acquired the rights for the 1993 film that would become his directorial debut. With a book by Palminteri, De Niro also co-directed with Jerry Zaks the musical adaptation that premiered on Broadway in 2016.

While the core of A Bronx Tale remains the same, the story loses some of its intensity when converted into a musical.

This story is centered around a child growing up in a very dangerous environment—but add lighthearted singing into the mix, and any feelings of danger, suspense and foreboding are greatly lessened. The true danger Calogero has put himself in isn’t translated as effectively in musical format as it would be in a film or play.

Though there are a few gunshots, the grimy, gritty elements one relates with New York gang life are muted in this musical, especially since the songs are often fluffy and sometimes corny.

A good bunch of the music, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, center around heart, whether that be following your heart, looking to your heart or whether a girl sends your heart whirling.

In addition, the music by Alan Menken, who is responsible for the scores of “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast” and many more Disney hits, doesn’t contain a single stand-out catchy tune. The music doesn’t leave a song resounding in the audience’s head (or heart) as they exit the theater, despite musical director Brian P. Kennedy’s fine orchestra.
While it may be true that a musical adaptation means the story has lost elements of intensity, its cute and sometimes cliché nature is still highly entertaining thanks to a top-notch cast.

Joey Barreiro plays a charming and cool Calogero. His voice contains just the right amount of rasp and bite that fits the character very well, which is especially true during the song “Hurt Someone.” Calogero has many funny quips that mostly poke fun at Italian-American stereotypes, and Barreiro delivers them effortlessly, resulting in a mirthful audience.

Young Calogero was played on opening night by Shane Pry, a smooth dancer and enthusiastic performer. Pry portrays all the right characteristics of a young Calogero: fun, playful, innocent and easily corruptible.

Joe Barbara is the quintessential actor to be playing Sonny. As soon as he steps on the stage, from his facial expression, to his posture, you can tell that he is a mob boss who’s not to be reckoned with. Barbara allows the softer sides of Sonny to show while also maintaining his inner menace, which is well exemplified in the song “Nicky Machiavelli.”

Young Lorenzo and Lorenzo eight years later are played by Joshua Michael Burrage and Richard H. Blake, respectively. Both actors portray the father figure with a sense of wisdom and absolute affection toward Calogero. The same can be said for Calogero’s mother, Rosina, who is played by Michelle Aravena.

Calogero’s love interest, Jane, is played by the sweet-voiced Brianna-Marie Bell. Her singing and persona are super lovable, and her dancing of Sergio Trujillo’s choreography during “Webster Avenue” is wonderful.

Calogero, Sonny and his gang are dressed in 60s gangster attire by designer William Ivey Long, fedoras and long suit jackets included. They execute Robert Westley’s fight choreography with great believability.

Beowulf Boritt’s set design consists of pieces of fire escapes, light posts and free-standing doors and windows to create a conceptual image of New York. This is often backed by complex painted backdrops, which lighting designer Howell Binkley bathes in a rather stagnant red shade.

While singing gangsters renders the show less hard-hitting or suspenseful as you would expect a true-life gangland story to be, A Bronx Tale is still an incredibly well-performed production that is fun, enjoyable and often times funny.

Through May 12 at the Connor Palace, 1615 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org.