Fort Worth — Striking performances by the leading actors and ensemble highlight the touring production of the Broadway musical A Bronx Tale, currently in a short run through Sunday evening at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth.
A Bronx Tale began life as a one-man play in Los Angeles in 1989. Actor-playwright Chazz Palminteri narrated a compelling, sometimes violent narrative about coming of age in the urban cauldron of the 1960s, epitomized in a working-class neighborhood dominated by the politics of race and organized crime. A Bronx Tale became a successful—and enduringly admired—movie starring Palminteri and Robert DeNiro in 1993; the Broadway musical version premiered in 2016 with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater, leading to a successful run of 700 performances on Broadway through 2018.
Joey Barreiro brings a calm, youthful charisma to the principal role of Calogero (aka “C”), communicating the tension of a young man who is beguilingly naïve on one hand and determined to be cool and knowledgeable on the other—in short, a teenage Everyman who happens to fall under the influence of organized crime. In the role, Barreiro also neatly pulls off the character shift of portraying the grownup, story-narrating Calogero, looking back with the insight of maturity on his old neighborhood. Barreiro applies his naturally attractive voice to achieve an appropriately understated performance of his sung segments.
As small-time mob boss and intriguing anti-hero Sonny, Joe Barbara towers over every scene he plays, both emotionally and physically; in his sung portions, he shows off a handsomely swelling baritone at just the right moments. The character of Sonny surely ranks as one of the most fascinatingly complex in the history of Broadway musicals, and Barbara does well by the part on every level. Vocally, the most impressive performance in the cast comes from Brianna-Marie Bell as Calogero’s love interest Jane, whose uniquely sweet, textured tone maintains its beauty at all volume levels. Her opulent vocal riff in the opening seconds of Act II is one of the musical highlights of the show. Bell moved up to this romantic lead from a supporting role as one of Jane’s friends during the Broadway run; she is clearly a singer/actress to watch.
Richard H. Blake successfully navigates the role of Calogero’s tough but affectionate working-class father Lorenzo, and is well-paired with Michele Aravena as Calogero’s mother Rosina. Shane Pry as the boy Calogero bounds through the complex choreography and vocal demands of his role with amazing, youthful skill. (Brigg Liberman plays the part at some performances.) And at the performance reviewed, Jason Williams displayed an eye-catching dramatic presence with choreographic flair as Jane’s brother Tyrone.
At heart a sort of grand mafia melodrama, A Bronx Tale encompasses an unlikely love story, a bad guy with a heart of gold, good guys with flaws, a car chase, an explosion, a circus-like entourage of colorful minor characters, and a two-hankie ending. Robert DeNiro, who made his cinematic debut as a director and starred in the film version as Lorenzo, also made his Broadway musical directorial debut with this version of A Bronx Tale, co-directing with Broadway veteran director Jerry Zaks. As in previous versions, this retelling convincingly and ambitiously explores issues of race, sexual attitudes, organized crime, generational conflict, and social structure in America.
Menken’s music continues that composer’s long string of commercially viable and successful musical scores, very much in the vein of his always pleasant, generally inoffensive contributions to animated Disney musicals such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid. Menken’s craftsmanship here is top-notch, channeling ‘60s rock ’n roll and Broadway tradition—though the story-line begs for a stronger reflection of the drama and conflict. Menken, in short, breaks no new ground here, missing an opportunity that called for innovative creativity.
In spite of playing it safe, the score offers a number of rousing moments. Sonny cheerfully evokes Italian Renaissance philosopher Niccoló Machiavelli’s grim pragmatism in the darkly upbeat “Nicky Machiavelli,” which blossoms into the soaring final ensemble segment of Act I. Act II picks up that energy with the youthful verve of “Webster Avenue,” a muscular paean to the African-American community just a few blocks away from Calogero’s Italian neighborhood.
Shortly after, “One of the Great Ones” gives us a dreamlike visual glimpse of Sonny as a young lover, balanced a few minutes later by Rosina’s memories of straight-arrow Lorenzo’s artistic youth, her song accompanied by a lilting saxophone solo. For better or worse, an ending that calls for quiet reflection (in the tradition of some of the greatest Broadway shows) lapses instead into a grand show-biz finale. Conductor Brian P. Kennedy keeps the small orchestra, at times dominated by digital keyboards, clipping along.
Sergio Trujillo’s unfailingly energetic choreography, like Menken’s score, generally avoids depiction of dramatic conflict and cultural interplay. The dance ensembles, however, execute with breathtaking precision and athleticism. Beowulf Boritt’s scenery stylishly creates the oppressive low-rise Bronx skyline as a backdrop for the colorful community life contained therein, and creatively handles changes of setting to maintain a sense of this special world at a special time. William Ivey Long’s costumes evoke the era in question while vividly delineating class and cultural distinctions.
And, although the score only occasionally rises above bland, solid competence, this version of A Bronx Tale offers a thoroughly engaging, visually appealing manifestation of Palminteri’s profound, boldly unsentimental memoir of American urban life, performed by an unfailingly impressive cast.