In “A Bronx Tale,” the national tour of the Broadway musical now on stage at the Walton Arts Center through March 3, the central character, Calogero, is asked to make one dichotomous choice: love or fear. As it plays out in this show, “love” is the kind of thing you show to your parents through respect, and the kind of grit you display by making an honest attempt at life. “Fear,” on the other hand, is the cloak of temporary invincibility you provide yourself when you prove how tough you can be at the detriment of another person’s skull. We know this because we’re told about making the choice between love and fear with all the subtlety of a baseball bat to the head. That’s the kind of fear instilled in the neighborhood by Sonny, a local crime boss, and his crew of lower-level thugs.
What: “A Bronx Tale”
When: Through March 3
Where: Walton Arts Center
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or tickets.waltonartscenter.org
Contrast this with the love in the home of Calogero (played by Joey Barreiro), whose hard-working, baseball-loving, bus-driving father Lorenzo (played by Richard H. Blake) would like very much for his son to stop hanging out with Sonny (played by Joe Barbara). Lorenzo is adamant about this to the point of returning the bank roll a nine-year-old Calogero (played by Frankie Leoni at some performances and Shane Pry at others) earns from helping the mobster, like rolling dice at crap games. There’s a scene very reminiscent of “Guys & Dolls” here, with a bunch of well-dressed men yucking it up and throwing money and dice on the floor. There’s also an apt comparison to be made to another Broadway classic, “West Side Story,” which brings a Shakespearean tale of forbidden love to New York City. A key difference between those two classics and this modern spin is that I liked the classics.
Like “West Side Story” (and its inspiration, “Romeo and Juliet”), “A Bronx Tale” is often a violent show. Set primarily on the stoops of a pair of streets in the Bronx or in Sonny’s exclusive-access bar, we watch fights, shootings and an explosion. It’s boisterous and brash, perhaps like the Bronx of the 1960s. There’s brash language present, too – both run of the mill curse words and a few racial slurs. Those epithets might be run of the mill for 1960s Brooklyn, too, but they stand out when uttered now. Those words become a plot piece, but one that lacks the development it deserves.
Calogero meets Jane (played Tuesday by Brandi Porter, but played often in this production by Brianna-Marie Bell), a black woman, at school. After a few flirty glances and a street corner introduction, he’s suddenly hanging out at her workplace. Jane’s friends try to put a stop to this relationship before it starts. But as in “Romeo & Juliet,” two minutes of exposition is all the characters need to fall deeply for each other. Later, fights between friends and neighbors lead to confusion, lies and carnage.
There’s a pair of well-done symmetrical openings to the acts. We start in Calogero’s neighborhood on Belmont Avenue. His friends sing and dance around the shops and describe their world. We open the second act a few bus stops away on Webster Avenue, which is Jane’s neighborhood. Her friends likewise sing their experiences. Well-conceived backdrop pieces were moved and redecorated to pull off the dual looks. But the parallel story telling ends there. We get Calogero’s whole story, and his parents’ reaction to his date, too. That might be because this is a semi-autobiographic story for the playwright, Chazz Palmenteri. He would know his side of the story best. For one reason or another, we get none of the same for Jane. Weren’t Romeo and Juliet onstage equals? At any angle you view it, there felt like unfinished threads regarding race, love and the mob. The subject matter was rich in potential, but little gets any depth of exploration in a surprisingly brisk show where neither act ran longer than an hour.
The well-worn storytelling tropes we gravitate toward in Broadway musicals get flipped on their head in “A Bronx Tale.” We usually watch a character make a bad choice, learn from it, then develop resolution for their problem (although, admittedly, it doesn’t work out well for Romeo or Juliet, or Tony in “West Side Story”). I’m not convinced Calogero learns anything here, and a critical choice is made for him through the fear-inducing will of Sonny. It’s Sonny who becomes our one beacon of hope, and it’s strange indeed to feel sympathy for him considering his stature as a mob boss. But, I think you just might.
All the acting roles are in capable hands for the production. The orchestra played well. The percussive sounds of violence were sharply executed, and the stage aesthetics, while simple, were smartly done. Which leaves us to the story itself. I haven’t watched the one-man play where this story got its start, or the 1993 movie directed by Robert DeNiro that cemented the idea, so I can only guess that a musical is not my preferred vehicle for this telling. But I’m willing to make that guess.
I didn’t love “A Bronx Tale.” But I certainly don’t fear it, either. A night at the theater is almost always better than a night at home. As “One of the Great Ones,” – the big, splashy number in this musical – concedes, there’s always a bit of risk when you venture into something new. It might be a “slight one, a close but not quite one” for you, too, but there’s often excitement in the pursuit.