Know what would be a great way to enjoy “A Bronx Tale?” Listen to the original Broadway cast album.
That’s all you need to get the best of the musical, with its zippy batch of songs by composer Alan Menken (whose music has highlighted “Beauty and the Beast” and “Little Shop of Horrors” on stage and at the movies) and lyricist Glenn Slater (“Sister Act”).
There’s a doo-wop, Brill Building-esque quality to many of the numbers. Which is appropriate, since the show is set from 1960-68, the heyday of that songwriting factory — which is, of course, chronicled in the Carole King musical “Beautiful.” In the case of “A Bronx Tale,” there’s also a smooth-talking mobster named Sonny, fashioned as something of a Frank Sinatra fanboy, complete with songs such as “One of the Great Ones,” which would fit neatly on a late-model Sinatra album in between, say, “The Best Is Yet to Come” and “That’s Life.”
The show attached to those songs? It’s generic enough that when the main character, Calogero, sings, “This is a Bronx tale/You know the story,” you may find yourself thinking, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I do.”
Calogero grows up the son of a bus driver but becomes fascinated by that melodious mob smoothie and becomes ensnared in Sonny’s world until it’s time to choose between a life of crime and a life of something else (which is not specified). The show is based on the life of actor Chazz Palminteri, who turned his diaries into a straight play, then a movie and then this musical, so I guess the “something else” for Calogero could be milking the heck out of a piece of intellectual property.
That mob/life dilemma is swiftly established in the first act. But the second act has nowhere to go, as evidenced by the fact that four of its nine songs are reprises of previous numbers. To pad out Calogero’s non-decision decision, there’s a feeble stab at dealing with racial issues in the Bronx that makes “Hairspray” look like “Eyes on the Prize.” And there’s a romance for Calogero with a woman about whom we know nothing except that she works in a record store and, apparently, time-travels, since the wall of her store is emblazoned with the Barbra Streisand album “The Way We Were,” which came out six years after that 1968 scene is set.
It’s not a terrible show. The actors, many of whom played these roles on Broadway, are terrific (including Joe Barbara as Sonny and Richard H. Blake as Calogero’s big-hearted dad). Jerry Zaks’ staging is clever. The athletic choreography is executed with precision by dancers who have a wide variety of body types. And if you like vertical-striped cardigans, you’re going to feel like you died and went to thrift-store heaven.
True, the ease with which “A Bronx Tale” dispatches such real-world problems as racism and gang violence is offensive, but I bet you wouldn’t even notice that if you fired up the album on your device of choice.