When you go to see a new show, you never are quite sure of what you will get or how you will react to it. But sometimes you get that one that causes you to pause in amazement at what you just experienced. It’s that moment when the story, the acting, and the music all come together and produce something really wonderful. That is happening at the Paper Mill Playhouse with its newest production, “A Bronx Tale: The Musical.” This show has that great story, fabulous acting, and a musical score that has you humming and tapping your feet as you leave.
The book for “A Bronx Tale: The Musical” is by Chazz Palminteri. In a Note from the Author, he wrote that he grew up in a tough area of the Bronx where he was given life lessons that “would later prove very useful to my career.” This story has appeal to a large audience because, as Mr. Palminteri says, it is a family story. The relationship between the father (Lorenzo) and son (Calogero) and the concern shown by the mother (Rosina) for her family is what gives the story its real base. But then there is a secondary relationship that borders on being a family and that is the one between the area’s gangster leader (Sonny) and Calogero. Their relationship influences the way Calogero decides to act several times in the show and ultimately brings him back to his father.
Co-directed by two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro and four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks, the story begins around 1959 – 1960 when Calogero is about 9 years old. He witnesses a shooting by Sonny outside of the building where he and his family live. The police question the young boy but he does not let on that he saw Sonny shoot the man who got killed. Sonny, in his attempt to show his gratitude, allows the young Calogero to become a part of his inner circle paying him for being his good luck charm at the craps tables. He confuses the boy who has great admiration for his father by saying that he won’t get anywhere just being an average working man. When his parents find the money Sonny has been paying him, they forbid Calogero to continue his association with Sonny. But he does.
Years pass, eight to be exact, and Calogero is still floating between two worlds. He now has his own very small gang of friends who try to impress others. Everything changes when he falls hard for Jane, who also goes to his high school. The years of the late 60’s with their racial tensions enter the story because Jane is black and both young people have to deal with friends and family trying to keep them apart. The one exception is Sonny who encourages Calogero to find out if she is “One of the Great Ones.” But unfortunately, fate has other ideas in store.
The timing and pacing of the show is excellent. Act I is more relaxed than Act II when the action keeps at a fast-pace to its sad climax. Calogero’s friends decide to fight with Jane’s brother and his friends but he is confused as the purpose of why this should be done. Just as it looks like Calogero will be involved with this battle, Sonny shows that there was more to him than just being a gangster. He takes Calogero out of harm’s way and away from his friends. Calogero is a bit confused but then he is grateful to Sonny when learns his friends were all get killed in an attempted attack that goes very wrong. He goes to thank Sonny but it is too late. He returns to his family, a lot wiser, a lot more grateful, and with a better understanding of something his father had told him he was young: “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent. Don’t waste yours, son. Promise me.”
The choreography by four-time Drama Desk Award nominee and Olivier Award winner Sergio Trujillo is right on target with dance numbers and fight scenes. The choreography and the music work hand in hand to provide many memorable songs and scenes. It’s hard at times to stay seated; you might just want to jump up on stage and join in. The well designed and developed sets are by Obie Award winner Beowulf Boritt and they capture the feel of the Bronx during that time period.
The music is by Academy Award and Grammy Award winning Alan Menken and lyrics by Grammy winner Glenn Slater. To put it mildly, it is an amazing score. There is a good variety including Doo-wop, the girl group sound, ballads, and catchy melodies. Two of Sonny’s songs, “Nicky Machiavelli” and “One of the Great Ones” stand out as exceptional. “Look to Your Heart” sung by Lorenzo and Young Calogero is also first rate. And for a group number, “Roll ‘Em” is pure fun entertainment.
The acting and the singing are strong and well done with a brilliant cast. Leading the company are Jason Gotay as Calogero, Joshua Colley as Young Calogero, Nick Cordero is Sonny, Richard H. Blake plays Lorenzo, Coco Jones is Jane and Lucia Giannetta plays Rosina.
“A Bronx Tale: The Musical” will run at the Millburn, New Jersey theater now through March 6, 2016. It will be performed eight times a week, Wednesday through Sunday. Tickets may be purchased by calling 973.376.4343, at the Paper Mill Playhouse Box Office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at www.PaperMill.org. To see photos of the curtain call for Opening Night, go to www.Letsgotothetheater.com.