“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent, and the choices you make will shape your life forever.” A Bronx Tale, a musical based on the play of the same name, opened at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles this week after a nearly two year run on Broadway. Often described as a cross between West Side Story and Jersey Boys, it tells the story of a young boy living in the Bronx in the 1960s who becomes embroiled in the world of organized crime, and the effects those early choices have on the formative years of his life.
Co-directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, A Bronx Tale follows Calogero, who is played by two different actors (Frankie Leoni as a child, Joey Barreiro as a teenager). One day while standing on his stoop on Belmont Avenue, Calogero watches as Sonny (Joe Barbara), a highly regarded and feared mob boss, shoots a man. He instinctively protects Sonny when questioned by the police, and in exchange Sonny begins to look out for him, earning him street cred in the neighborhood and letting him roll the dice in illegal gambling games, even giving him small cuts of the profit. Calogero’s parents, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) and Rosina (Michelle Aravena) are dismayed, heartbroken that their son has chosen this life. Lorenzo is a bus driver and always raised his son to believe in the value of an honest day’s work, but Calogero, whom Sonny calls simply “C,” is quickly transfixed by the allure of the mob lifestyle. Things grow more complicated when he falls in love with Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell). She is black, which makes their relationship controversial in the neighborhood, and to C’s old-fashioned parents.
Alan Menken’s score is solid yet unmemorable, featuring many reprises and repeated themes of following the head versus the heart. Glenn Slater’s lyrics are often on-the-nose—”this is A Bronx Tale,” the chorus often croons, in case the audience has forgotten. With a book by Chazz Palminteri, who also wrote and starred in the play and the 1993 film adaptation, many of the supporting characters are reduced to stereotypes. Sonny’s crew, and later Calogero’s friends, are all distilled to a single trait, and even Jane functions primarily as an object of affection, which is a shame as Bell possesses the most impressive pipes in the cast and does not get to show them off nearly enough.
The problem with the understandable comparisons to musicals like Jersey Boys and West Side Story is that A Bronx Tale borrows the least interesting aspects from other stories of this era, resulting in a show that is pleasant but ultimately mediocre and forgettable. Much about it also feels dated in a way that does not quite translate today. The treatment of women is cringeworthy and old-fashioned—Sonny sings an entire song about how to know if a woman is “one of the great three loves” a man gets in his life, while teaching Calogero that the true “test” of if a woman is serious relationship material is if she unlocks the car door for you. If she doesn’t, she’s selfish, and the man should end things as quickly as possible. And this is far less problematic than Calogero’s friend Mario’s version of such a test, which is too degrading to even repeat.
It makes sense that the female characters are so underserviced because in many ways the show is a love triangle between Calogero and his two competing father figures—Lorenzo and Sonny. The two represent entirely different value sets and worlds, and it makes sense that a rebellious kid would feel conflicted. Child Calogero is worlds easier to root for than teen Calogero, who is arrogant and ignorant. The play version of A Bronx Tale is a one-man show, which is perhaps why all of the elements added for the musical end up feeling like filler, adding bulk to a story that does not have a ton of substance to begin with.
A Bronx Tale runs at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through November 25th. The running time is two hours, including one intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased here.