“A Bronx Tale” must have been a tremendous source of satisfaction for Chazz Palminteri over the years. Crafted by him from the true story of his 1960s youth, the piece originated as his one-man show in 1989. The successful 1993 film version starred the writer as neighborhood gangster Sonny, who took the young Chazz under his wing, and Robert De Niro, who also directed, as Chazz’s working-class father. The solo-show version, directed by Jerry Zaks, returned to Broadway in 2007 and is still touring, with stops in New Jersey later this year.
Now, in addition to relating his personal story on stage or watching it unfold on film, Palminteri can also hum it. “A Bronx Tale: The Musical” is premiering now through March 6 at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. Palminteri’s own-authored script anchors a creative dream team: music by Alan Menken (“Little Shop,” “Beauty and the Beast”), lyrics by Glenn Slater (“School of Rock,” “The Little Mermaid”) and direction by the tandem of DeNiro and Zaks. Whew. Can another Paper Mill-to-Broadway transfer be in the offing? (“Newsies” and “Honeymoon in Vegas” recently made the move.)
What that team hath wrought – aided by a superlative cast – is a street-wise musical play whose fast-paced, frequently witty dialogue evokes the 1960s Bronx. The songs are fresh and relevant to the story, and if some of the characters are clichés (“archetypes,” re the author), it’s on purpose and enhances recognition.
Nine-year-old Calogero witnesses a murder in front of his tenement. When he doesn’t finger perpetrator Sonny in a lineup, an immediate bond is formed between the wiseguy and “C,” as Sonny dubs Calogero. C’s bus-driver father disapproves of the relationship, creating a triangular conflict that fuels the main plot.
A parallel story line involves C’s budding romance with Jane, an African-American girl from his high school. While “A Bronx Tale: The Musical” does not shy away from exploring the virulent racism that permeated their separate neighborhoods, the Calogero/Jane thread accounts for some earthy gospel/soul sounds amidst the doo-wop. The interaction of the two themes also inspires an unexpected character revelation as well as one of the show’s best songs and a bittersweet resolution.
The opening street-scene (Sergio Trujillo’s spiffy choreography) is narrated by late-teen Calogero, played by Jason Gotay, whose résumé includes flying as Peter Parker in “Spiderman”. Now earthbound, Gotay might be the most personable fellow you’ll ever meet. His rapport with the audience is living-room comfortable, and he has a winning way with a song.
Whoever cautioned against playing scenes with child actors might have been thinking of Joshua Colley, who plays nine-year-old Calogero. The lad owns the first 20 minutes. By the time his “I Like It” stops the show, he has already anchored several scenes and been at Sonny’s crap game (where the “Roll ‘Em” number owes a debt to another guy’s Luck being a Lady).
Sonny is the flip side of the comic heavy that earned Nick Cordero multiple awards in Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway”. Cordero makes the transition here with deceptive ease. He’s the quintessential made-man in appearance and attitude: scary and inviting at the same time, tough without needing to prove it. Cordero aces “One of the Great Ones,” Sonny’s advice-about-women song (“…smart ones, tough ones/and just good enough ones…”).
C’s parents are stock characters, but Richard H. Blake and Lucia Giannetta give them some depth. Sonny’s hangers-on look and act the way their names sound: Eddie Mush is one, JoJo the Whale another. Then there’s Frankie Coffeecake (don’t ask). Making her stage debut as Jane, Coco Jones, erstwhile star of the Disney Channel movie “Let It Shine,” is possessed of youthful good looks and an agreeable singing voice. The Jane-Calogero duet “In a World Like This” is easy listening.
Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design features four skeletal-frame towers that revolve to alternately indicate interiors or fire-escape exteriors. It is an effective device. Locations are also well delineated by Howell Binkley’s lighting, and legendary costumer William Ivey Long pulls off his usual magic. Their collaboration evokes 1960s Belmont Avenue to a tee.
Some exposition is overstated and the conclusion relies on forced sentimentality, but those shortcomings can be remedied before the show crosses the Hudson. I don’t know which director most influenced what elements, but it’s safe to say that what little Jerry Zaks might not know about characters and scenes, Robert De Niro does – and vice versa. Already highly entertaining, the future of “A Bronx Tale: The Musical” is in capable hands.
Through March 6 at Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ. Performances Wed thru Sun. For evening and matinee schedule and tickets ($32-$135): 973-376-4343 or online at www.PaperMill.org