“It’s just a Bronx tale,” sings Calogero (Jason Gotay), rather modestly, near the end of “A Bronx Tale: The Musical,” which opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, in its world premiere, on Sunday. Indeed, the tale itself — a little bit “West Side Story” and a little bit “Goodfellas,” with some retro “Jersey Boys” flavor mixed in as well — is not the strongest part of this new musical. But it’s still got the heart, the charm, the songs, and the all-around polish to make it a big hit.
It’s a first-class production in every way. It seems almost inevitable that it will come to Broadway at some point.
“A Bronx Tale” was originally a 1989 one-man play by Chazz Palminteri, who drew upon his own experiences growing up in the Bronx’s heavily Italian Belmont neighborhood. It was then adapted into a 1993 film, directed by, and co-starring, Robert De Niro.
For this musical, Palminteri wrote the book, and Jerry Zaks (who directed the 2007-08 Broadway revival of the one-man play) and De Niro co-directed. Alan Menken, Glenn Slater and Sergio Trujillo — all of whom have long lists of Broadway credits — handled the music, the lyrics and the choreography, respectively.
The plot has the young Calogero falling under the sway of charismatic mobster Sonny (Nick Cordero), much to the dismay of his hard-working, principled bus driver father Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) and loving mother Rosina (Lucia Giannetta). It begins in 1960, when fate first brings together Calogero and Sonny (who believes “the working man is a sucker”), and then jumps to 1968, when Calogero, a teenager still torn between his father and his father figure Sonny, is attracted to an African-American girl, Jane (Coco Jones). His father and his friends don’t approve; Sonny just shrugs.
Sonny’s cronies — guys with names, all eventually explained, like Rudy the Voice, Eddie Mush, JoJo the Whale, Frankie Coffeecake and Tony Ten to Two — are a colorful bunch, and provide much of the comic relief. Calogero — nicknamed “C” by Sonny — eventually attracts his own pathetic little crew as well, three non-rocket scientists named Slick, Nicky Zero and Crazy Mario.
Cordero does a good job at making Sonny’s contradictions seem plausible. Sonny is a smooth operator and is capable of great brutality, but he also is genuinely concerned about Calogero, and tries to impart what he’s learned about life (including bits of wisdom gleaned from that philosopher whose works he read while in prison, “Nicky” Machievelli).
Among the other actors, Joshua Colley, who plays the young Calogero, deserves a special mention for the little burst of swagger he brings to the song “I Like It,” in which his character is overjoyed at the perks that his new association with Sonny brings.
Many of Menken’s melodies are instantly memorable, and Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design effectively evokes both the shabbiness and the warmth of the urban setting where Calogero grew up.
The only minor disappointment I had was that while the soundtrack to the film evoked the ’60s with rock music as well as soul and doo-wop and funk, there really wasn’t any rock in the show. At the end, they even went back to doo-wop, which had been perfectly appropriate (and, really, quite beautiful) at the 1960 start of the story, but seemed out of place in 1968. It did bring the story full circle, though, which I guess was the point.
But really, this wasn’t a big deal: I’m just a fan of the film’s soundtrack, which is amazing, so I had a certain expectation. I’m sure most people wouldn’t even notice, or care.
“A Bronx Tale: The Musical” is at the Paper Mill Playhouse through March 6; visit papermill.org.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.