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.

Review: `A Bronx Tale’


Chazz Palminteri excavates his childhood in his one-man show A Bronx Tale, at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre through Oct. 19. Photo by Joan Marcus


Chazz Palminteri offers a `Bronx’ cheer

Watching Chazz Palminteri come to life on stage in his one-man show A Bronx Tale, you realize how limiting movies can be.

Palminteri has made dozens of films, from The Usual Suspects to Bullets Over Broadway to the upcoming Yonkers Joe, and we haven’t begun to see nearly the shadings and colors and vitality onscreen that we see on stage at the Golden Gate Theatre.

Palminteri has been typecast by Hollywood as a tough guy, a gangster, a lawyer, a mean father – but he’s got a lot more to offer, as he demonstrates in this showcase piece, originally developed in 1989 when he was a starving actor, just fired from a bouncer job. The play did the trick, and his movie career ignited.

Robert DeNiro made his directorial debut with the movie version of A Bronx Tale, in which Palminteri starred, and now the actor has taken the story of his childhood and teen years back to the stage and to cities around the country.

In the movie version of Bronx, which tells the story of 9-yearold Calogero (later nicknamed C, even later nicknamed Chazz) witnessing a mafia murder from his front stoop at 187th Street and Belmont Avenue and his ensuing friendship with the murderer, neighborhood mob boss Sonny, Palminteri played Sonny.

It’s a cool, powerful performance. Palminteri is tough and still and more than a little scary. On stage, when Sonny is one of 18 characters Palminteri brings to life, the gangster is much livelier, more loose-limbed, not quite so imposing. In other words, he’s more human.

Oddly, Palminteri’s gallery of Bronx rogues is cartoonish for sure – even the names such as Eddie Mush, Frankie Coffecake, JoJo the Whale, Jimmy 10to2 evoke cartoon images – but it’s somehow more believable than the movie, more human.

On a set meant to evoke the fragments of memory – designer James Noone gives us a little bit of Calogero’s tenement, the neon and front window of the Chez Joey bar and a streetlight – Palminteri takes us from age 9, when he witnesses the murder and refuses to rat Sonny out to the cops, to age 17, when he’s the young lord of the ‘hood because he’s Sonny’s kid.

Palminteri is a commanding storyteller – physical and funny.

Director Jerry Zaks paces the 95-minute show well, and there’s a nice build to a fateful night that involves racial violence, romance and a long, slow goodbye. The build-up to the big finish is expertly staged by Zaks and performed by Palminteri, who grabs hold of his audience in ways the movie version never could.

If the show has a flaw, it’s the slickness. Palminteri is entertaining and fun to watch, but the emotional connection doesn’t run as deep as it could. This is a very polished production. Palminteri hits all the right notes and punctuates his story with handclaps to keep the audience alert, but this “Tale” seems more practiced than felt much of the time.

A Bronx Tale runs Sept. 23 through Oct. 19 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$85. Call 415-512-7770 or visit www.shnsf.com or www.ticketmaster.com.

Chazz hands! Palminteri tells a `Bronx Tale’

If your name was Calogero Lorenzo Palminteri, you might simplify to Chazz, too.

Chazz Palminteri has made a career of playing thugs, gangsters, wiseguys and goombahs – maybe those are all the same thing, but with Palminteri, at least you get a little range. There’s serious bad guy, as in Diabolique, the comic bad guy, as in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, and then there’s the slick, scary gangster, as in Robert DeNiro’s A Bronx Tale.

The 56-year-old Palminteri is taking a break from screen roles to head back to the stage in the one-man play he wrote for himself back in 1988, when it seemed the only jobs he could find were as slick attorneys and assorted tough guys.

The play was A Bronx Tale, which opened off Broadway and sparked Palminteri’s ascension to stardom. Semi-autobiographical, this Tale chronicled Palminteri’s rough childhood growing up on East 187th Street in the early ’60s. “Any other borough,” he says, “seemed 3,000 miles away.”

Sonny was the No. 1 man in the neighborhood, a God to the ordinary folks who feared and revered him. When he was 9-years-old, little Calogero witnessed Sonny gun down a man in the street, but when questioned by the cops, the boy protected Sonny by saying nothing.

From that moment, the boy is pulled by the two men in his life: his father, Lorenzo, a hardworking bus driver, and Sonny, the glamorous thug who nicknames him “C.”

A Bronx Tale, in which Palminteri plays all 18 parts, was a hit, and the movie roles started coming.

About 20 years later, Palminteri is back on stage. He revived A Bronx Tale and took it to Broadway last year. Now he’s on the road and brings the show to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series. The show opens Tuesday, Sept. 23 and continues through Oct. 19.

On the phone from Austin, Texas, the first tour stop, Palminteri answered a few questions about his life and career.

How did a kid from the Bronx end up as an actor?

When I was about 10 years old, I just knew I wanted to be an actor. I remember watching On the Waterfront on TV thinking, “I could do that!” I just wanted to be an actor for as long as I could remember. I was a storyteller. I’d make up stories on the corner then go tell ’em to the wiseguys. I’m 10 and 11 making people laugh. My mom used to take me to the movies a lot. When I got older, I saw a few plays downtown at the 13th Street Theatre. I knew I could do it.

How did folks in the old neighborhood react to your career choice?

I was a total maverick in the neighborhood. Usually kids became cops, firemen, wiseguys, sanitation engineers, things like that. I was blessed with parents who said, “Go for it. If you have a dream, dream it.” I say this in the play, but it’s true. My father told me, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” The people in the neighborhood laugh. They say, “You used to tell stories for free on the corner. Now we have to pay.”

Most people probably aren’t aware that one of your early jobs was as a singer in your own band, Chazzamatazz.

Yeah, I started singing on the street corner with an a cappella group. Some wiseguy asked me to sing onstage in this bar. Then I got my own band. I still sing. I look forward to singing on Broadway one day.

Speaking of singing, you and the songwriter Jimmy Webb attempted to turn A Bronx Tale into a musical. How’s that going?

For whatever reason, we couldn’t make it work. Jimmy Webb is an incredible songwriter. I love him. He’s a great man. But the music and the book just couldn’t…come to a good conclusion.

So now you’ve made something like 50 movies and you’re back doing A Bronx Tale. Why’d you bring it back?

I’ve done all these movies, and when people come talk to me, it’s always about A Bronx Tale. That’s why I decided to bring the play back. A whole new generation never saw the play. People tell me they love the movie and it changed their kid’s life – he was on a bad road and is now on the straight and narrow. On Broadway, people after the show told me the show changed their life or their kid’s life. So I want to go out on the road and bring it to other people. And I’ll add that people who love the movie say the play’s better.

You’ve come back to the play as a father yourself (son Dante Lorenzo is about to be 13 and daughter Gabriella Rose is 6). How does that affect you as a performer?

When I first did the play, I was a boy relating to the father. Now I’m that father relating to the son. It’s pretty amazing. The show has a deeper meaning for me now. Right after Broadway, my father, Lorenzo, passed away. He had a beautiful life – he was gonna be 90. The play has triple meaning for me now. My father loved the show. He liked to say, “I’m the real Lorenzo. DeNiro is playing me!”

Why do you think A Bronx Tale is so loved by so many people who have probably never set foot in the Bronx?

It’s a universal story. Anywhere I go, people are laughing and rolling and reacting. It’s a coming-of-age story, a father-son story. There’s racism. It’s got everything. Like Woody Allen said: “It’s all about the story.”

A Bronx Tale runs Sept. 23 through Oct. 19 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$85. Call 415-512-7770 or visit www.shnsf.com or www.ticketmaster.com.

PLEASE NOTE: Palminteri will take part in a Q&A following a screening of Bullets Over Broadway on Monday, Sept. 22 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco. The movie is at 7 p.m. and yours truly will serve as moderator for the event. Hope to see you there. Call 415-621-6120 for information.

All that Chazz…

Let’s go watch a Chazz Palminteri movie … with Chazz Palminteri!

While the venerable movie and stage actor is in town with his one-man show, A Bronx Tale (Sept. 23-Oct. 19 at the Golden Gate Theatre), he’s going to head up Market Street to the Castro Theatre for a screening the 1994 Woody Allen movie Bullets Over Broadway in which he stars as a brainy thug named Cheech, who’s a much better writer than the playwright David Shayne played by John Cusack. The role nabbed Palminteri an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

Here’s one of my favorite exchanges between Cheech and David:

David Shayne: You’re gonna write it?
Cheech: What am I? A fuckin’ idiot? They taught me how to read and write in school before I burned it down.
David Shayne: You burned down your school?
Cheech: Yeah, it was Lincoln’s birthday. There was nobody there.

Palminteri will submit himself to a Q&A session after the movie, and I will serve as moderator.

Please join us. The movie is at 7 p.m., Monday, Sept. 22. The Castro Theatre is at 429 Castro St., San Francisco. Admission is $9.50 general, $7 for seniors (62 and up) and children (12 and younger).

You can also enter to win tickets to A Bronx Tale (visit www.shnsf.com for information about the show).

Visit www.castrotheatre.com for information about the movie screening.

Now here’s a sneak preview of Bullets Over Broadway (alas, Palminteri isn’t in this clip, but Harvey Fierstein and Dianne Wiest, in her Academy Award-winning role, are):

And all that Chazz

Chazz Palminteri, one of the reasons I love Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway so much, is bringing his one-man show A Bronx Tale to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre Sept. 23 through Oct. 19. The show will be the final entry in the SHN/Best of Broadway 2007-08 season.

First mounted off-Broadway in 1989, the show didn’t become a movie until 1993. Palminteri wrote the screenplay, and Robert DeNiro made his astonishingly assured directorial debut. Before heading out on national tour, Palminteri revived the show on Broadway last year under the direction of Jerry Zaks.

A Bronx Tale is the story of a young man coming of age in the early 1960s amid much mafia mayhem. Curiously, there is a musical version (of course) of the story with a score by Jimmy Webb (the wonderful songwriter behind “MacArthur Park,” “Up, Up and Away,” “Wichita Lineman” among many others), who collaborated with Palminteri on the show. Here’s a suggestion: warm up Bay Area audiences with Palminteri in the original, then get all the producers in line (as if that were easy) and hold the out-of-town tryout in San Francisco. Next stop, Broadway!

Tickets to see Palminteri in A Bronx Tale are $40-$85 and will go on sale this summer. Visit www.shnsf.com for information.

Here’s a piece on the Broadway run: