A whole crew of “wise guys” from New York City has recently arrived in Madison via the national Equity tour of the award-winning musical A Bronx Tale, and they’ll be shooting craps, protecting the neighborhood and harmonizing in doo wop songs at Overture Center through May 19. You’ll know them by their signature hats, sharp suits, slicked back dark hair, penchant for all things Italian and their thick accents. And over the course of the two-hour show, peppered with high-energy, up-tempo musical numbers, you’ll get to know all of them -- Rudy the Voice, Eddie Mush, Jo Jo the Whale, Frankie Coffeecake and Tony 10 to 2 -- along with the mob boss Sonny, who is the ultimate guardian of Belmont Avenue and the unlikely father figure for our hero Calogero, also known as “C.”
This is the largely autobiographical story of actor/writer/director Chazz Palminteri. Long before “The Sopranos” was a cultural phenomenon, he was capitalizing on our fascination with the Italian American mob in his own one-man show off-Broadway, which garnered the attention of superstar Robert De Niro, who then turned the story into a movie. Mr. De Niro then co-directed A Bronx Tale’s latest iteration, as a Broadway musical with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater.
Frequently described as a cross between Jersey Boys and West Side Story, this good fellas story feels both authentic and cliche. It’s got the cred of biography with lots of great details to bolster the mafia and red sauce, coming-of-age story in a deeply Italian neighborhood in New York, in the 1950s and ’60s. But it’s also got lots of recycled, classic clashes -- between the police and the mob, Italian Americans versus African Americans, the working man and the made man. It also has Romeo and Juliet overtones of star crossed lovers who can’t be together because of their race. In addition, there’s a battle between two men who would advise, guide and love Calogero the most -- Sonny or his father Lorenzo -- and his parents’ struggle to keep their child on the right side of the law so he can achieve his dreams, rather than cross over to a life of easy money, violence and crime.
Wrap the grocery list of conflicts in a lot of high octane dancing and fun radio pop a la the ‘50s and ‘60s and it’s not JUST a huge pasta bowl of Jersey Boys and West Side Story, it’s also got ingredients from Guys and Dolls, Hairspray, Oliver, Beautiful, and Grease. That is not to say that the show isn’t a lot of fun, but it does sometimes feel like eating leftovers.
The musical is narrated by a teenage Calogero (a charming Joey Barreiro), who introduces us to his neighborhood, his friends, his enemies and his mentors, then leads us to the moment when he really has to choose whether he’ll follow his heart and use his talents, or follow Sonny into the mob. Barriero has a fantastic singing voice and an easy presence onstage, so it’s not hard to root for him. And as the slick mafia don Sonny, Joe Barbara is a taut combination of ruthlessness and generosity. He is Sky Masterson gone bad, with a rich tenor and a Sinatra style. As his straight arrow, working stiff father Lorenzo, Richard Blake introduces a central theme of the show with the anthem, “Look to Your Heart” -- a lesson that takes a long time to sink in for C.
Act two begins with an exuberant celebration of the music and dance of another community at another address — “Webster Avenue,” is the African American neighborhood a few blocks over. Where the top of the show pays homage to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the second half opener is an ode to the Shirelles. Here we meet Jane (Brianna Marie-Bell), her enormous brassy voice, and some of the most beautiful retro dresses in the show (costume design by William Ivey Long). With personality for miles, the young, college-bound girl steals C’s heart, even though they both realize being together might have dangerous consequences.
While C’s father won’t accept them as a couple, Sonny is delighted that his protege has found, perhaps, “One of the Great Ones.” By far the best song in the show, the mob boss croons about pursuing true love at any cost, because opportunities for romantic happiness aren’t likely to come around more than three times in a lifetime.
The rest of the show is consumed with fist fights, death threats, a revenge scenario that goes terribly wrong and one that unfortunately succeeds, convincing C once and for all to follow his heart -- away from his beloved Belmont Avenue and out into the world.
Is it wholly original? Is it groundbreaking? No. But it’s a good musical, performed with real energy, a big helping of nostalgia, and yes, a lot of heart. As the cast sings in the finale, it might be “just another Bronx tale,” but it’s an endearing one.