Local Arts

Review: “A Bronx Tale: The Musical” stuffs a coming-of-age story into a tight package

Briana-Marie Bell (Jane) and cast members of “A Bronx Tale: The Musical.”
Briana-Marie Bell (Jane) and cast members of “A Bronx Tale: The Musical.”

Playwright Chazz Palminteri would tell you the most important word in the title of “A Bronx Tale: The Musical” is the first one.

It’s a Bronx tale — lifted almost incident for incident from his own 1960s childhood, yet applicable to any teenager who loves a girl his peers revile or gets tempted by a problematic life offering unimagined rewards.

It’s meant to be personal yet archetypal, specific to his Belmont Avenue neighborhood yet understandable almost anywhere.

Palminteri, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater make that balance work in this show, which came to Charlotte on Tuesday in the Broadway Lights series.

The musical’s actually too short, 100 minutes plus a 20-minute intermission. It’s crammed with incidents: multiple deaths, an interracial romance fraught with danger, the street life of The Bronx in the 1960s — punctuated incessantly and attractively by music — and the battle for the soul of young Calogero, waged by his bus-driver dad and a mob capo. We hardly get time to breathe, with 14 songs and four reprises added to the dialogue.

This may have made the narrative seem shallow to Tony voters, who didn’t nominate it in a single category in 2017. Perhaps Menken’s most eclectic score appeared to be a contrived, genre-hopping stylistic game: An uptempo Bobby Darin knockoff here, a Frank Sinatra-style ballad there, a Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell-type love duet, doo-wop and girl-group harmonies and old-fashioned Broadway ensemble numbers Frank Loesser might have admired.

If so, I think those voters missed the point. Palminteri shoehorns in as much of the original 1989 play as he can because it’s dramatically compelling, even when condensed. Menken’s score, perhaps his finest non-Disney work and one aided by Slater’s well-judged lyrics, all comes from his New York DNA. He absorbed these influences growing up in the ‘50s and ’60s, loves them and makes good use of them. The styles come at us rapidly, in ever-changing patterns, but nothing’s false or out of place.

Only Calogero gets developed as a character. He starts as an 8-year-old in 1960, exulting in newfound neighborhood authority when gangster Sonny becomes his padrone. He ends up a confused high schooler determined to get away from Belmont Avenue and make something of himself. Both Shane Pry as young Calogero (on opening night) and Joey Barreiro as the rueful older narrator earn your affection. Pry’s one of the rare child actors you miss when you realize he’s not coming back after the first half of Act 1.

Richard H. Blake and Joe Barbara play Calogero’s real and surrogate fathers, straight-arrow Lorenzo and charismatically dangerous Sonny, with authority. Yet we don’t find out much about either man, beyond Sonny’s acquaintance with Machiavelli and Lorenzo’s long-ago wish to be a jazz musician. They’re simply appealing opposites, each exerting a pull on the boy. Jane, Calogero’s might-be girlfriend, also has few facets, despite Brianna-Marie Bell’s winning voice and personality.

The musical does possess one special virtue many don’t: authenticity in accents, speech patterns and pungent (often obscene) dialogue. Whether or not a story is true — and only Palminteri would know — it must feel true to us. This one does, start to finish.

“A Bronx Tale: The Musical”

WHEN: Through April 21 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $25-$109.50.

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes, including one intermission.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org