Fretts Off Broadway: A Bronx Tale—The Musical!
I’m not a big theater goer—unless you count movie theaters—but I enjoy the occasional show, especially when it’s based on a movie. And only weeks after I declared Robert De Niro a whore for doing Dirty Grandpa, I went to see the Off-Broadway… way Off-Broadway (as in Millburn, New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse)… musical adaptation of his big-screen directorial debut, A Bronx Tale. No, Bobby’s not dancing and singing like he did badly in New York, New York, but he co-directed the show, and it’s pretty damn good.
Granted, De Niro surrounded himself with some stage heavyweights. His co-director is four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks, the score is by 11-time Grammy winner Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast), the lyrics are by Glenn Slater (School of Rock), and the book is by Chazz Palminteri, based on his original off-Broadway one-man show. Hell, even the costumes are by six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long. Top of the line, this show.
The story, a spin on Romeo & Juliet with an Italian-American wiseguy wannabe and his African-American paramour, lends itself nicely to the musical format. It’s West Side Story meets Jersey Boys, only, y’know, in da Bronx. Menken’s toe-tapping score owes a debt to his earlier work on Little Shop of Horrors in its doo-wop opening, set in the early ’60s, when the Chazz character, named Colagero, is played by a remarkable scene-stealing kid named Joshua Colley. (Remember that name, he could be the next Jacob Tremblay. And if you don’t know who Jacob Tremblay is, go see Room. Now.)
Once the story flashes forward to 1968, the music takes on more of a Shaft feel, especially whenever the African-American characters are on stage. The lyrics are consistently witty and a bit edgy, as Slater rhymes “yours truly” with “moolie” (Italian slang for eggplants, and a derisive term for African-Americans). I mean, how can you not love a show with a ballad about the author of The Prince, “Nicky Machiavelli”?
Among a uniformly strong cast, the grown-up standouts include Nick Cordero as Sonny, the mobster who becomes a father figure to Colagero (the role was played by Palminteri in the film, and Cordero has the actor’s mannerisms down cold, having played another of his big-screen characters in Woody Allen’s ill-fated Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical); Coco Jones, in a spectacular stage debut as Colagero’s love interest Jane; and Michael Barra, a mountain of a man who plays a neighborhood guy named Joe Joe the Whale.
Given that I saw the show’s second-ever preview, it’s in terrific shape, but it still could use a little work. The female characters are underdeveloped—a subplot about Colagero’s ma (Lucia Gianetti) and her choice to marry his dad (Jersey Boys vet Richard H. Blake, filling De Niro’s bus-driver shoes nicely) instead of Sonny is barely brushed over. And we need more Coco Jones. Every time she opens her mouth, it’s magic. If you recognize her voice, it may be because she starred in Disney Channel’s No. 1 movie of 2012, Let it Shine. And she does. The show runs a tight two hours and 15 minutes and could use another 15 if it allowed each of these two another solo.
In fact, the second act feels a little rushed, even though my companion for the evening nodded off during it, but I blame that on one too many Curtain Call Cosmos (made with champagne!) before the show. As it turned out, I didn’t need any booze to be intoxicated with A Bronx Tale: The Musical. It left me happily drunk in the belief that I may just have sneaked an early peek at Broadway’s next big hit.
Then again, I felt the same way after I saw the pre-Broadway run of Honeymoon in Vegas (another musical based on a movie!) at the Paper Mill. I was convinced Tony Danza was going to win his namesake award for it. Instead, it sank like a pair of cement shoes once it crossed the Hudson River. So what do I know from theater? Fuhgeddaboudit!