Review: A Bronx Tale Recreates the Classic Gangster Story With Music by Alan Menken

The cast of A Bronx Tale. Photo by Joan Marcus.

A Bronx Tale, based on the play by Chazz Palminteri, is the story of Calogero Anello (Joey Barreiro), his childhood growing up in the titular borough, and his coming of age as a member of the local mafia. Most will know A Bronx Tale from the popular film of the same name; Palminteri starred as mob boss Sonny alongside Robert DeNiro (also marking his directorial debut). As a musical it is a nostalgic look at childhood memories, a rough and tumble ode to old Broadway, and a touching father and son tale from Alan Menken, one of music theater’s important composers.

The story remains largely the same as the play, beginning with Calogero’s introduction into the world of organized crime. Sonny (Joe Barbara, reprising his Broadway role) is the number one man in the neighborhood–he demands respect, and everyone treats him like a god. When he’s 9 years old, Calogero (played by Frankie Leone and Shane Pry) witnesses Sonny commit a murder just outside his stoop, but lies to the police, ultimately getting Sonny exonerated. Sonny takes Calogero under his wing and affectionately nicknames him C.

His father Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) is a decent, hard-working man, driving a bus for the city and imparting lessons of honesty and compassion to the young boy. When he notices that Calogero is getting wrapped up in Sonny’s world, he tries to intervene. This begins the central tension of A Bronx Tale—the rest of the show is essentially Calogero positioned between these two giants in his life, trying to figure out how to become the man he should be while still honoring the man that he truly wants to be.

In high school Calogero rises to become Sonny’s right hand man. We learn that Lorenzo was once offered a job among the crew, but refused. The father and son become increasingly distant as Calogero dives deeper into the life of organized crime and violence. It is a story about heritage and changing times, and the challenge of recognizing that your heroes are flawed while still accepting the parts of them that made you who you are.

For romance there is Jane (Brianna-Marie Bel)—she is an African American girl from a different neighborhood, and C admits that it might as well be a different planet. They both deal with disapproval from those close to them—from C, his own family and his crew. And Jane’s friends and brother don’t see C as anything different from the rest of the racists from his neighborhood. Their affection for one another serves as a catalyst that ignites rising tension in the neighborhoods, and forces Calogero to decide once and for all who he will be in this world.

Menken, who famously wrote the music for Beauty and the BeastAladdin, and The Little Mermaid provides a soaring, tender score for A Bronx Tale. Here he’s supported by lyricist Glenn Slater. I wouldn’t call it an important work like his others, but when he hits the right note, such as on the Sinatra-flavored “One of the Great Ones,” which stands in for the film’s famous “car test” scene, the show really finds its groove. There are even some gentle references to the doo-wop music from his famous Little Shop of Horrors, such as when young C first tries on his swagger and rises in status in the neighborhood, delivering the show stopping “I Like It.” And though some of the other music is less than memorable, it keeps up a breezy, engaging pace that never overstays its welcome. And when Menken leans into music that feels period-appropriate (the show is set in the 1960s), the result is satisfying, recalling the innocent joys of Grease and Hairspray.

There’s real fun in the tough, machismo world of the Bronx, and I think that speaks to the enduring nature of the gangster genre. The songs do a lot to recreate the back and forth ribbing nature of these guys—they are constantly calling each other’s bluffs, making fun and putting each other down. It’s a rite of passage and show of respect. The energy in Menken’s numbers manages to capture the feel of this verbal dance and injects the flavor of the neighborhood onstage.

The wrapup is a little tidy, and I felt myself wanting the thematic weight to pull just a little harder–this is a world of murder and racism, of real consequences—and it’s hard to feel some of that gravity in the brevity of this production. But director Jerry Zaks creates enough instances of cinematic pop and theatrical invention to support a series of heartfelt performances in what is ultimately a moving musical experience.

There are some wondrous moments when A Bronx Tale feels almost operatic in its choreography of brutality and mafia toughness–of course there are easy, obvious allusions to West Side Story–but the tenderness also reminded me of the loving depictions of desperate city living in the beautiful, tragic poetry of early Springsteen ballads like “Incident on 57th Street” and “Jungleland.” It’s strange territory for a musical, but it really works by the end, filling up the stage with a sense of place and character as vibrant as Lin Manuel-Miranda’s In the Heights. This a big, bold Broadway tour, full of crowd-pleasing humor and cool, 1960s gangster drama.

A Bronx Tale continues through March 24 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph. Tickets start at $27. Running time is 2 hours, 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Matthew Nerber
Matthew Nerber

Matthew Nerber is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection. He is a 2019 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.