A Bronx Tale: The Musical, the current production at Millburn, New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, is based on Chazz Palminteri’s 1993 autobiographical movie. Set in the Bronx during the 1960s against the backdrop of organized crime and racial unrest, the story is bookended by the adult Calogero (Jason Gotay) who, in an extended flashback, takes us back to his childhood and teen years torn between the influence of his honest working-man father Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) and the feared neighborhood gangster, Sonny (Nick Cordero).
Nine-year-old Calogero (Joshua Colley) is a good kid who, sitting on his stoop, happens to see Sonny shoot and kill a man. When the cops ask the boy to identify the killer from a line-up of neighborhood thugs that includes Sonny, he lies and says Sonny isn’t the murderer. A bond forms between Calogero and Sonny, who gives the boy the nickname “C.” He hangs out more and more with Sonny, doing errands, absorbing the gangster’s lifestyle, and getting generous “tips” along the way. When his parents find $1,200 in cash in the boy’s room, Lorenzo confronts Sonny and demands that his son stay away from him and his thugs. But Sonny’s influence is great it’s hard for C to forget all he’s seen and learned.
Years later, In high school, C is smitten with Jane (Coco Jones), a black girl. Though they don’t care about what others think, the interracial relationship causes a myriad of problems for both of them.
Translating a dramatic film into a musical has its challenges, but book writer Palminteri, with the able assistance of upbeat music by Alan Menken and clever lyrics by Glenn Slater, has succeeded in transforming a period drama into a full-fledged Broadway-style musical. Though the story is familiar from the movie, the experience of watching the show is entirely fresh. As co-directed by Robert DeNiro (who played Lorenzo in the movie) and Broadway veteran director Jerry Zaks, A Bronx Tale has energy, humor, and terrific performances.
Mr. Gotay is an excellent adult C. Combining innocence, rebellion, single-mindedness, stubbornness, and romantic infatuation, he infuses C with a bunch of often conflicting elements. With an easy charm and a knowing twinkle, his C is a budding Sonny, yet has the soul of a sweet guy trying to figure out the world and his place in it. Mr. Gotay pours out C’s heart when he echoes Sonny’s words in the song “One of the Great Ones,” referring to Jane, and is adept at switching from young Bronx tough to gentle boyfriend to frustrated son, as the scene requires.
Cordero, who starred on Broadway in Bullets Over Broadway, provides just the right blend of intimidation, street wisdom, and humor as Sonny. The actor makes clear why young Calogero looks up to Sonny: he commands respect, dresses well, carries himself like a king, and packs a wad of cash. Mr. Cordero knows how to get the laughs, too. In his solo first-act number, “Nicky Machiavelli,” he tells C why the Italian Renaissance writer/philosopher/politician embodies everything he holds sacred, a high-brow justification of his own street-hewn methodology.
Joshua Colley, as young Calogero, is an expert actor and goes through his dramatic paces professionally, but blows the roof off the theatre with his anthem to being a protege of Sonny, “I Like It.” In this song, he belts out joy at his new neighborhood status, dances and spins enthusiastically, and absolutely commands the stage. At the opening night performance, he received the loudest ovation of the evening for this number.
Mr. Blake has a hard act to follow, since he steps into the role created by De Niro. His Lorenzo is a decent guy, working hard to support his family and steer his kid on a proper path, who has to contend with Calogero’s growing dissatisfaction with his father’s square rules and morality. In the song “Look to Your Heart,” Lorenzo expresses to his boy that he must rely on the values that his parents have instilled in him and his own sense of right and wrong.
Sets by Beowulf Boritt include revolving towers that suggest apartment buildings with fire escapes, a dominant Belmont Avenue signpost, interiors of a bar and Calogero’s apartment, and Belmont Avenue itself. Though the sets don’t necessarily suggest the 60s, they do provide character for the neighborhood. Sergio Trujillo is credited for choreography, but this consists mostly of staged fluid movement rather than detailed dance routines.
Co-directors De Niro and Zaks have crafted an entertaining, brisk show whose darker themes are balanced by lighter moments. The characters are vivid, the songs perfect at both providing insight into character and moving the show forward, and performances worthy of a Broadway stage. Paper Mill has recently been a launchpad for Broadway-bound shows. Both Newsies and Honeymoon in Vegas played the Paper Mill first. With its overall quality and audience appeal, A Bronx Tale: The Musical seems a logical contender to follow them across the Hudson.
A Bronx Tale: The Musical will be performed Wednesday through Sunday through March 6. Performance schedule is Wednesday at 7:30 P.M., Thursday at 1:30 and 7:30 P.M., Friday at 8 P.M., Saturday at 1:30 and 8 P.M., and Sunday at 1:30 and 7 P.M. Tickets start at $32 and may be purchased by calling (973) 376-4343, at the Paper Mill Playhouse box office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at www.PaperMill.org.