A Bronx Tale

Paper Mill Playhouse - Millburn, NJ - January 2016

Review by John Kenrick

The photos below are used with the permission of Paper Mill Playhouse.

A Bronx Tale full castJason Gotay and the cast celebrate 1960s Bronx street life in Paper Mill's world premiere of A Bronx Tale.

Anyone wondering where to find exciting new Broadway musicals need look no further than Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. One of the finest regional theatres in the Northeast US, Paper Mill has been showcasing new musicals for several seasons, with some impressive results -- most notably the stage premiere of the smash hit Newsies.

Now, from the same composer, Paper Mill offers the world premiere of A Bronx Tale, a tuneful and extremely enjoyable musical based on actor Chazz Plaminteri's autobiographical film and one man stage show. Alan Menken's appealing melodies are matched by Glenn Slater's well-crafted and entertaining lyrics. They have provided one of the catchiest new stage scores I have heard in years. Palminteri has provided a witty and at times rather heartfelt libretto. It looks back on his youth in the Bronx, when he had to choose bewteen the repectable example set by his bus driving father and the more glamorous criminal lifestyle of a murderous but kindly gangster. This relatively simple premise provides surprisingly strong material for the cast and creative team to work with.

And what a stellar creative team! Robert DeNiro, who co-starred in the 1993 film, co-directs with Tony-winning Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks. Unfortunately, their efforts leave something to be desired. Most of the solos are currently presented as "I'm going to stand (or worse yet, sit) in one spot and sing" moments, which takes some of the dramatic energy out of otherwise fine songs. And making the actors play a crucial final scene while standing behind a massive casket is downright clumsy -- the action matters more than a blasted set piece. If these simple issues are remedied, A Bronx Tale will be well on the way to making the vital jump from a promising possibility to a solid commercial winner.

Sergio Trujillo has provided some exciting and varied choreography -- but more would be a major asset. Beowulf Borritt's inventive sets and William Ivey Long's superb costumes are already Broadway worthy invocations of Bronx in the 1960s. All is handsomely reinforced by Howell Binkley's fine lighting. Musical director Jonathan Smith keeps the score moving at a tight pace, and makes his twelve musician orchestra sound twice its size.

As young Calogero (Palminteri's real given name), 13 year-old Joshua Colley damn near steals the show by turning the delicious "I Like It" into a genuine showstopper. Quite good but not nearly as compelling is Jason Gotay playing the same character as a young man, serving as both central character and narrator for the entire show. He may improve in time, but it will take a stellar performance in this role to make this show succeed beyond Millburn.

Richard H. Blake is solid and likeable as the boy's loving father. And Nick Cordero, who was so memorable as a musical mafioso in Bullets Over Broadway two seasons ago is sensational as Sonny, the local wiseguy who takes Calogero under his wing. His witty solo, a tribute to classical author "Nicky Machiavelli" is just shy of being a showstopper in its own right. Disney Channel TV star Coco Jones provides dazzling vocals but an otherwise one dimensional performance as the African-American girl Calogero falls for. Their relationship was forbidden in the 1960s, but since few sparks fly between the performers, the show loses something crucial.

Nick Cordero & Joshua ColleyNick Cordero shows young Joshua Colley the fine points of shooting craps in A Bronx Tale.

The ensemble does a super job of giving life to a wide range of mob flunkies, well-coiffed bombshells, streetcorner thugs, and other colorful types who bring the streets of the 1960s to life. I grew up in Queens during the same period, and knew many of these people as friends and neighbors. Kudos to the cast and crew for bringing so many of my memories to life.

Some moments in A Bronx Tale are a bit familiar. For example, when Sonny teaches young Calogero how to shoot dice in "Roll 'Em," its impossible not to sense echoes of a similar crap game in Guys and Dolls. And I doubt anyone in the Paper Mill audience saw this show's quartet of teens do-wopping beneath a streetlamp without thinking of Jersey Boys. But the overwhelming content is so original that I doubt these will seem like anything more than unavoidable and pleasant reminders of previous favorites.

A Bronx Tale's team has openly stated hopes of bringing this show to Broadway. With an excellent score, a solidly entertaining libretto, and some outstanding talent both behind the scenes and on stage, this show has definite potential. As is always the case, some fine tuning and rethinking are needed. I just hope the directors and authors follow the advice in their own script and look to their hearts. Whatever the future brings, they are currently giving Paper Mill audiences one hell of a good show!

This production runs through Mar. 6, 2016.

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