Enough with the clichés already in A Bronx Tale

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Joe Barbara is Sonny (left), the mafioso, and Joey Barreiro is Calogero (center), the kid who gets tangled in his web, in the touring Company of A Bronx Tale, a musical version of Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical story. Below: Little C (Frankie Leoni) finds himself in the good graces of the neighborhoods No. Guy (Barbara as Sonny). Photos by Joan Marcus

If it feels like we’ve seen it all before, well, we have. The gangsters, the tormented teens, the tough streets of New York’s deeze, dem, dose borough – it’s all the same old stuff in the musical version of A Bronx Tale now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season. And the familiarity isn’t just because this story was previously the basis for Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical one-man show or the movie version that served as the feature directing debut of Robert De Niro or the upgraded one-man show that Paminteri took to Broadway and then around the country.

A Bronx Tale just feels like a cursory retread of a coming-of-age story with the tension coming from a young Italian-American boy’s pull between a mobbed-up good life (choosing to be feared) and the noble life of a working man (choosing to be loved) with a little mixed-race romance thrown in to remind us that the bulk of the show takes place in the late ’60s, even though the musical feels like perpetual 1959.

Palminteri adapted his script for the musical, while Alan Menken provides the score, which feels like Hairspray meets Jersey Boys by way of Goodfellas and Glenn Slater provides the pile of clichés that serve as lyrics. If you played a drinking game and took a shot every time someone says or sings the word “heart,” you’d be sozzled by the end of Act 1. For a musical so concerned about heart, it’s interesting that there really isn’t one here – just a lot of slick staging (by co-directors De Niro and Jerry Zaks) and choreography (by Sergio Trujillo) tied together with a by-the-numbers script and a score filled with Frank Sinatra/Bobby Darin/Four Seasons/Motown knockoffs that are pleasant but shallow. The opening number, “Belmont Avenue,” feels like Menken’s opening number from Beauty and the Beast pieced together with leftovers from his Little Shop of Horrors score.

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The cast delivers exactly what the show asks of them. Joe Barbara makes for an imposing Sonny, the chief goomba. You believe he’s feared in the neighborhood, but even though we see him shoot a guy in cold blood, his toughness tends to evaporate each time he opens his mouth to sing. The kid pulled between the forces of good and evil on Belmont Avenue, Calogero or “C” as he’s known by his mob pals, is played as a 9-year-old by Frankie Leonie, who displays some terrific dance moves, and as a 17-year-old by Joey Barreiro, who’s earnest but lacking any complexity. The female characters in the show are, alas, way, way, way in the background. The only one who makes an impression is Brianna-Marie Bell as Jane, the African-American girl from Webster Avenue who catches Calogero’s eye. She doesn’t get a great song or a chance to make Jane anything more than sweet and apparently unbound by societal conventions.

Richard H. Blake as Calogero’s noble bus driver dad is a standout here, even though he’s stuck with the sappiest song in the score, “Look to Your Heart.” In a role he originated on Broadway, he’s got a sweet, supple voice that makes his character, Lorenzo, feel like a good guy, even though there aren’t many shades to the man other than he loves his family and is good at a job he does out of duty rather than passion.

And that kind of describes this Bronx Tale – competent and fitfully enjoyable but crafted more out of duty than of passion.

A Bronx Tale continues through Dec. 23 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Disney’s Aladdin flies high at the Orpheum

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Adam Jacobs (Aladdin) and Anthony Murphy (Genie) (center) in Disney’s Aladdin North American Tour company at the Orpehum Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Jacobs and Isabelle McCalla as Jasmine prepare for a magic carpet ride. ©Disney.

There is no question in my mind, that of all Disney’s animated film to Broadway adaptations, Aladdin is the most thoroughly successful. For The Lion King stage adaptation, Julie Taymor offered eye-popping spectacle and stagecraft in service to a flimsy story and even flimsier characters. Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s first Broadway venture, was fun and dazzling but only a ride vehicle away from being a theme park attraction. The less said about the misguided Tarzan and missed opportunities of The Little Mermaid the better.

Aladdin is pure, old-fashioned musical comedy, and it works at all levels. On Broadway, the show was a delightful surprise, and happily, everything that made it so much fun is present and accounted for in the lavish national touring production now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season.

I reviewed the show for TheaterMania.com. Here’s a sampling.

There’s a reason Aladdin is Disney’s best animation-to-stage effort, and that reason is Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw. His work on shows like The Book of Mormon and Spamalot have honed his ability to bring just the right balance of comedy, razzmatazz, and heart to Aladdin’s bag of tricks.

Nicholaw’s success with Aladdin, now in its fourth year on Broadway and with the national tour, which launched earlier this year, has everything to do with his light, energetic touch and his ability to find humor that can appeal to children and adults.

Read the full review here.

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Disney’s Aladdin continues through Jan. 7 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$213 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Disney’s Newsies seizes its musical day

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The Broadway touring company of Disney’s Newsies, a flop movie musical that found new life on stage, lands at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Dan DeLuca (center) is Jack Kelly, the leading newsboy with dreams of Santa Fe in Newsies. ©Disney. Photos by Deen Van Meer

Newsies that unlikely Broadway hit that started out as a flop movie musical, isn’t so much about groundbreaking theater as it is a sterling example of how efficient Disney can be at creating solid, broadly appealing entertainment.

The Broadway production closed last fall, but the tour dances on. If ever there was a show meant for the road, it’s Newsies, a high-energy, stick-it-to-the-man ode to unions of all kind (labor, romantic, brotherly). Now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season, Newsies is the definition of crowd pleaser.

You can feel the machinery working here as Harvey Fierstein amps up and fills out the bare-bones movie screenplay about New York news boys who rebelled against money-grubbing Joseph Pulitzer in 1899. He dutifully provides a strong, intelligent young woman (absent from the movie), raises the dramatic stakes for the leading characters and does his best to make the boys themselves more than their identifying features (Crutchie has a crutch, Spot has a big arm mole, Specs wears…well, you get it). Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman tinker with the movie songs (which are quite good) and a few more, the best of which is the lively “Watch What Happens.”

Director Jeff Calhoun adopts a strategy of speed and motion to keep Newsies leaping through its 2 1/2 hours. There’s hardly a dull moment (except maybe for Pulitzer getting a shave), and much of the show’s entertainment value comes down to the choreography by Christopher Gattelli. These aren’t really news boys, after all. They’re Broadway dancers, and boy oh boy (oh, boys!) do they get to demonstrate their talent. From the gymnastics of “Carrying the Banner” and “Seize the Day” to the tap of “King of New York,” these young men are fountains of twirling testosterone. Acrobatic, graceful and aggressive, these dancers are the show’s motor, and though the plot of the little guys against the big bazillionaire bully has its moments, it’s the sheer joy that comes through the dancing that makes Newsies memorable.

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Dan DeLuca makes for a charismatic leading man as Jack Kelly, the de facto unionizer of the Newsies, and what’s a downtrodden hero without a pipe dream? For Jack, that translates to dreams of life out West in Santa Fe. DeLuca has a strong voice tinged with modern pop stylings. He and Stephanie Styles have a nice chemistry, which helps tone down the schmaltz in their duet, “Something to Believe I,” one of those love songs where they actually have to stop singing so they can kiss. Twice. Styles’ best moment is “Watch What Happens,” which, in addition to being an ode to journalism (yay, newspapers!), captures youthful, if naive, enthusiasm: “Their mistake is they got old. That is not a mistake we’ll be making. No sir, we’ll stay young forever.”

Youth itself is practically a character on this stage. “Newsies” revels in the idealism and, especially, the energy of youth. That’s why the anthems – “Seize the Day,” “Once and For All” – have such power. It’s like Les Miz lite with less flag waving and more dancing on newsprint.

The only really disappointing thing about Newsies is its ending. After all those stirring anthems, the strike is resolved and their are reprises of “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.” No powerful ballad or chorale to capture the moment or perhaps consider the future. Of course the finale/curtain call is overloaded with more hyperkinetic dancing, which is fun, of course, but by this time in the evening, we’re craving something more than melodrama, leaps and a relentlessly cheerful ensemble.

It’s all slick and efficient and impeccably performed – entertaining to be sure, but sometimes big, bold headlines aren’t enough.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed composer Alan Menken and cast member (and Bay Area native) Julian DeGuzman for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Newsies continues through March 15 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$250. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Review: `Stephen Schwartz and Friends’

Out of the ruins and rubble
Out of the smoke
Out of our night of struggle
Can we see a ray of hope?
One pale thin ray reaching for the day

We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can …

Friday night at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz diverged from his set list after opening his show, Stephen Schwartz and Friends, with the sweet “Chanson” from his 1976 show The Baker’s Wife.

Sitting at the grand piano, the diminutive Schwartz, 60, warned the sound and lighting crew that he was going rogue. Inspired by the election of Barack Obama and heartened by watching the president-elect’s first press conference that afternoon, he shuffled aside the song “Reluctant Pilgrim” so he could sing “Beautiful City,” a paean to hope from his 1973 hit Godspell.

The expertly chosen, inspirational song, which echoes Obama’s rally cry of “Yes we can!” was slightly out of Schwartz’s range, but when the spirit moves you, notes hardly matter.

In the 90-minute Schwartz showcase, which closes out Broadway by the Bay’s 43rd season (and continues with shows at 2 and 8 p.m. today, Saturday, Nov. 8, and at 1:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9), the veteran composer shared the spotlight with three dynamically different singers: Tony-winner Debbie Gravitte, cabaret and Broadway vet Liz Callaway, and award-winning cabaret crooner Scott Coulter.

With Schwartz at the piano, each of the singers had a defining moment. For Gravitte, it was playing the waitress Dolores from Schwartz’s adaptation of the recently departed Studs Terkel’s Working, who elevates the level of service in “It’s an Art.”

For Callaway, there were two great moments: in the sadly sweet “Lion Tamer” (from 1974’s The Magic Show) and her bravura version of “Meadowlark” from The Baker’s Wife, which is a song she has been singing for years and sings just about better than anybody else. She also joined forces with Coulter on the “love medley” with Callaway taking the lead on “As Long As You’re Mine” from Wicked and Coulter on “In Whatever Time We Have” from Children of Eden.

For Coulter, who’s more of a pop/soul singer than a Broadway belter, the best number was the achingly romantic “So Close” from last year’s Disney film Enchanted (lyrics by Schwartz, music by Alan Menken). But Coulter also soared on the medley of “Just Around the Riverbend,” another Menken-Schwartz Disney collaboration, this one from Pocahontas, with “Corner of the Sky” from the 1972 smash Pippin.

In addition to singing some heartfelt solos – “Forgiveness’ Embrace” from his 2002 album Uncharted Territories and “For Good,” the emotional finale of Wicked – Schwartz offered a master class in songwriting for musicals by taking us through the evolution of “The Wizard and I,” the young witch’s cris de coeur from Wicked.

The original song for Elphaba to declare her dreams and ambitions was called “Making Good,” and though he tried several versions of the song, it just wasn’t working. So, with help from book writer Winnie Holzman, input from his director son Scott Schwartz and with inspiration from A Chorus Line (give them what they want but make them wait so they’re more grateful), he eventually landed on the show-stopping belter that helped make Wicked such a phenomenal success.

In a giant medley of hits, Schwartz and his singing friends were able to knock out “Day by Day,” “Magic to Do” as well as his Oscar-winners, “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas and “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt.

Another hopeful song, “Someday” from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, ended the show, but Schwartz’s impromptu burst of light from earlier in the show was still ringing through the hall:

When your trust is all but shattered
When your faith is all but killed
You can give up, bitter and battered
Or you can slowly start to build

A beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But finally a city of man.

Click here to read an interview I did with Schwartz for Theatre Bay Area magazine.


Stephen Schwartz and Friends is at 2 and 8 p.m. today, Saturday, Nov. 8, and at 1:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo. Tickets are $17-$45. Call 650-579-5565 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org.

Here’s the song “Beautiful City” from the 1973 movie version of Godspell (for which the song was written):

Enchanted by `Enchanted’

Last night I attended a screening of Disney’s big holiday movie, Enchanted, and I have to say, I was pretty charmed by the notion of a classic Disney animated feature turned on its head and morphed into a modern-day, live-action musical.

The trailer gives you a pretty good idea what the movie’s all about:

The songs are by the Academy Award-winning dynamic Disney duo of Stephen (Wicked) Schwartz and Alan (Beauty and the Beast) Menken. The pair previously collaborated on Disney’s Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And though there aren’t enough songs for my taste, there are two — a huge, joyful production number in Central Park that ends in a veritable festial surrounding Bethesda Fountain, and a romantic waltz at a ball sung by Jon McLaughlin — that make me anxious for the CD (slated for release Nov. 20, and the movie comes out Nov. 21).

Amy Adams plays Giselle, a gentle (and somewhat simpleminded) lass who has Snow White’s woodland cottage and affinity for all creatures great and small. In her hand-drawn animation bliss, she has Ariel’s red hair and Belle’s taste in clothes. Her Prince Charming (Edward, actually, played by James Marsden in his second musical of the year after Hairspray) is more taken with himself than with Giselle, but every prince needs his princess.

Of course Edward’s stepmother, the Queen (Susan Sarandon chewing the scenery), has a problem with a potential new queen, so she and her bumbling sidekick (Timothy Spall) figure out a way to kick Giselle out of animated fairy tale land and into the harsh reality of Times Square.

Soon Prince Edward, the sidekick and, eventually, the queen herself, end up in the real world, where people, doggone it, just don’t spontaneously burst into song.

Giselle is saved from a downpour by handsome lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey, naturally), single dad to an adorable princess-deprvied daughter (Dad wants her to have strong women role models like Marie Curie and Harriet Tubman). Of course they think this beautiful redhead is absolutely bonkers, but they both fall for her charms.

Robert’s somewhat harsh girlfriend is played by Idina Menzel (the Tony Award-winning star of Schwartz’s Wicked), who doesn’t even get to sing a song, which is a shame.

There’s a lot of charm in this movie — not the least of which is a computer-animated chipmunk named Pip that nearly steals the picture — and the “let’s make fun of musicals while loving them at the same time” tone works well .

That said, I have reservations — and they’re cynical and very non-fairy tale in spirit. I can just hear the Disney corporate meetings that concocted what amounts to a giant commerical for its new line of princess toys and princess costumes and princess birthday party kits and princess everything under the sun. The princess business is already booming, and this movie is sure to kick it into even higher gear (I hear there are already Macy’s tie-ins).

I’m all for girl-power, feminist-revisionist fairy tales, and when, at the end of Enchanted, it’s up to Giselle to save her mister in distress, it should be a lot more triumphant than it is. There were so many opportunities to be clever and smart here, and Adams’ utterly captivating performance (sincere and silly in equal measure, knowing and hearfelt and, yes, enchanting) could have take the movie to a much more finely etched portrait of female empowerment and charm. But the script (and the heavy-duty special effects) ultimately disappoints.

And may I chime in with all the 10-year-old girls and complain that we don’t get to see the final, most important wedding (there is a wedding, but it’s not really the one we want to see). And there should be a great final musical number, not a soundtrack song by Carrie Underwood.

Here’s the official Enchanted Web site. There are film clips and behind-the-scenes glimpses.