Dallas — If visitors to New York City ask for directions to Little Italy, they might be pointed to a small area in lower Manhattan that was once larger and home to some of the city’s best authentic Italian restaurants. But the City has more than one Little Italy. Arthur Avenue in the Bronx also boasted some of the most legendary eateries in NYC and it runs right through the Belmont neighborhood.
Belmont in 1961 was a very tight, traditionally Italian community, and home to 9-year old Chazz Palminteri. He was born Colagero (after his grandfather) Lorenzo (his father) Palminteri. A Bronx Tale is his story, one which begins at Belmont and 187th and is recreated within Beowulf Boritt’s intriguing set design that includes Madonia, Gino’s Pastry Shop, and Mike’s Deli from the old neighborhood. It was a time of hanging out on one’s stoop where no one’s business was theirs alone, wise guys excluded.
Chazz Palminteri has been telling his life story on stage since 1989 beginning with a one-person show Los Angeles. Jerry Zaks directed the Broadway production version of the one-man show in 2007. Several people expressed interest in developing the property for film, but only one person agreed that Palminteri should act in the film: Robert DeNiro. A Bronx Tale was DeNiro’s film directorial debut. While directing Marvin’s Room, a friendship developed between DeNiro and the director Jerry Zaks. They co-directed Palminteri’s play and later, the musical which opened on Broadway in December 2016. Supporting Palminteri’s script are the music of Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors and The Little Mermaid) and the lyrics by Glenn Slater (Sister Act and The Little Mermaid).
This is a wonderful show, a clear and surprising highlight of the AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series this season. Surprising because it has been promoted as “Jersey Boys meets West Side Story” (amNY) and that is a little too reductive for this piece. Palminteri has had 30 years to refine the story into a good script. The direction is so clean and smooth that what could easily have been a bumpy story glides along and seems to end earlier than one wants it to. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is perfectly complementary. Solid performances from the cast elevate the story such that the audience can empathize with each character, rejecting the simplicity of a good or bad assignment for them.
When we enter the story 9-year-old Chazz (young Colagero, played by Frankie Leoni from Burleson, Texas) sees neighborhood wise guy Sonny (Joe Barbara) kill a man. Fearing retribution from his neighborhood, he never reveals the truth, not even to his father Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake). In his neighborhood the most detested human being was one who snitched, a rat. Sonny is drawn to the boy and begins grooming him for the gangster life which includes giving him a nickname, C. Lorenzo, an honorable working bus driver struggling to support his family, is desperately trying to save his son (older Colagero played by Joey Barreiro) and convince him that the “saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
Another layer to the already tense hard working father vs. snazzy gangster story is C’s attraction to a girl, Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell), from Webster Avenue, a black neighborhood and therefore the wrong neighborhood. Tribalism and racism were intertwined between 1961 and 1968 in reaction to the demographic changes affecting Belmont. On a collision path are C’s budding gangster life and the realities of life for young black men in the Bronx in 1968, in particular Jane’s brother Tyrone (Antonio Beverly).
All of the singing is strong but Blake has a voice one wants to snuggle into like a warm sweater. His is the ideal styling for Lorenzo’s songs, those of a strong man’s lament over the potential loss of his only son. Bell has a big, colorful sound sparkling with the youthful purity required for Jane.
Sonny is the most complex character and Barbara takes his time with the slow peel back of each layer. Sonny is the dark character who does not become sympathetic, but he is understood, which is better.
One might expect the only child in the show to be cute and lovable, but Frankie Leoni is more than that—he is exceptional in this role.
A Bronx Tale is a distinctly male coming of age story. There are only six women in the cast of 27, including the swing: his mother, Rosina (Michelle Aravena); Jane, Jane’s friends Denise (Ashley McManus) and Frieda (Brandi Porter), dancers Haley Hannah and Kyli Rae, and Brittany Williams (swing).
Palminteri has explained that this does not mean his mother and sisters they were of lesser importance in his life. (His sisters are not in A Bronx Tale at all.) It’s just that the events which shaped him most dramatically were those which situated him between two men presenting him with a choice between “living life through love, or through fear.” A Bronx Tale is about which direction he turned when presented with that choice.
Belmont looks different today, the result of population migration and gentrification. The Italian dominance has been diluted as the Latinx community has expanded but Little Italy is still there, as are Belmont and Webster Avenues. And Arthur Avenue is still the place to shop, eat and perhaps hear stoop tales from the old days.