Two innovative hits, “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” have set a high bar for the contemporary Broadway musical.
“A Bronx Tale” isn’t a show for the ages, like those two instant classics, but it’s packed with talent and has been put together with very pleasing skill by the co-directors, Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks. Like the about-to-close “Something Rotten,” it’s a throwback to the more modest two- or three-season hits of an earlier era – solidly built shows such as “Promises, Promises” or “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
A one-man play by Chazz Palminteri that was turned into a successful 1993 film starring De Niro, “A Bronx Tale” feels like a lighter version of “GoodFellas,” showing us how a young Italian-American named Calogero is seduced by the money and power of a neighborhood gangster. Unlike Henry Hill in the classic Martin Scorsese film, Calogero loves and respects his bus driver dad Lorenzo, but strays for a time under the influence of the mobster.
It’s a simple story, perhaps not meant to be retold so many times, but as a musical it merits comparison with “In the Heights” – an ode to a young man’s love for a gritty city neighborhood he eventually has to put behind him.
The show has a good 1960s pastiche song score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, who did a similar solid job with their soulful tunes for “Sister Act” (another surprisingly good middle-of-the-road musical drawn from a popular film). The excellent Nick Cordero as Sonny gets the two best numbers, the amusing “Nicky Machiavelli,” in which the hood explains why he reveres the Italian philosopher; and a neo-Sinatra ballad “One of the Great Ones,” about the very few chances at love any man can expect in life.
“A Bronx Tale” deals with race relations in the show’s best subplot, in which Calogero (Bobby Conte Thornton) falls for a beautiful black girl from Webster Avenue, Jane (played by the best singer in the cast, Ariana Debose). The relationship puts both characters at odds with their friends and family, providing Act Two with a much more serious tone than the opening scenes.
“A Bronx Tale” is destined to run in the shadow of more important shows, but it should prove to be a stealth hit, pleasing audiences in New York and around the country for years to come.