An old-fashioned party line connects Belmont Avenue in the Bronx with Times Square, where a gaggle of Broadway talent has been phoning it in for the musical version of Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale. Seasoned with street-corner harmonies recalling the plaintive crooning of such local sensations as Dion and the Belmonts, and generously plumped with ingredients from older, better shows, an easy-going familiarity suffuses A Bronx Tale, along with the comforting glaze of nostalgia. They don’t make ’em like they yoozta (try as they might).
This souped-up roman à clef began in 1989 as a monologue by actor Chazz Palminteri (The Usual Suspects, Analyze This), telling the story of young Calogero growing up under the tutelage of two powerful males: his dad, Lorenzo, a bus driver and devoted family man; and Sonny, the local capo (a different sort of family man) who likes the kid’s gumption and takes him under his wing. Robert De Niro made his feature directing debut and co-starred with Palminteri in the 1993 screen adaptation. The solo version ran on Broadway in 2007-08 before Palminteri took it on the road.
The musical adaptation adds songs by longtime collaborators Alan Menken and Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid, Tangled, Sausage Party) and dances by Sergio Trujillo (On Your Feet!, Jersey Boys), with staging credited to both De Niro and Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks (next up: Hello, Dolly! with Bette Midler). That all sounds like money in the bank, especially when you bring in a terrifically appealing cast led by the redoubtable Nick Cordero — last seen as Earl in Waitress and a star of the ill-fated musical adaptation of Bullets Over Broadway — as Sonny. And Richard Blake, late of Jersey Boys, as Lorenzo. There’s even a star-in-the-making performance by Bobby Conte Thornton, in his Broadway debut, as Calogero.
Since there’d be no theater without father-son conflicts, it’s probably silly to accuse A Bronx Tale of being old fedora. The show begins in front of his house, where young Calogero (Hudson Loverro, a crowd-pleasing juvenile) witnesses Sonny killing a man. When the police arrive, Lorenzo insists no one saw nuthin’. But Calogero says he saw everything. Yet when asked to ID Sonny in a lineup, C (as Sonny soon rechristens him) clams up. Soon he’s out-earning his father as Sonny’s gofer and, eventually, trusted lieutenant.
“This is a Bronx tale,” we’re reminded, considerably more often than is absolutely necessary. The Yankees are gods and Joe Di Maggio is Zeus. There’s nary a conflict that can’t be resolved with a hug. The neighborhood is divided between the Italians of Belmont Avenue and the African-Americans moving in to Webster Avenue. This leads to a romance between C and Jane (the very likable Ariana Debose), frowned upon by all except Sonny, who (perhaps inconsistently for someone who claims Macchiavelli as his godfather) encourages C to follow his heart.
Astutely staged by Zaks (mostly) and, OK, De Niro, A Bronx Tale unfolds briskly on Beowulf Boritt’s set, reminiscent of the shows it will remind you of, with the painted storefronts and skeletal fire escapes of West Side Story; a game of craps right out of Guys & Dolls, and other Broadway touchstones, all handsomely lit by Howell Binkley. William Ivey Long keeps things in check with some of his most conservative clothes ever, though capri pants and frilly tops on limber, sharp-elbowed dancers have rarely looked better. For that, also thank dance-maker Trujillo, oddly under-utilized here.
As to the score, like the story itself, it’s instantly forgettable. Every line and every rhyme comes roaring down the straightaway (the sound, by the way, is horribly amped up) from a mile off. The likable Menken of Little Shop Of Horrors is much in evidence, but absent the cheeky lyricism of his partner on that show, Howard Ashman. There’s no song to compare with a keeper like “Somewhere That’s Green.” To be sure, there are worse crimes.