Love or fear? That is the question that permeates the musical A Bronx Tale. Based on Chazz Palminteri’s own life, A Bronx Tale follows Calogero (Joey Barreiro) as he grows up in the Bronx neighborhood of New York. At the age of nine, Calogero (Frankie Leoni) meets the infamous neighborhood boss Sonny (Joe Barbara), who takes him under his wing, much to the dismay of Calogero’s hard-working father Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake). The audience watches Calogero grow from a nine-year-old boy to a young man perpetually torn between the two prominent father figures in his life. Although the songs all sound very similar, they get the audience dancing in their seats nonetheless. These upbeat songs are often followed by scenes of fighting, gunshots, or explosions. This stark contrast creates a unique, though sometimes jarring, atmosphere that represents the multifaceted nature of the play. Although it is a relatively short play, there is a nice shift from the first to the second act that helps to keep the plot moving and entertaining the entire time. With a strong balance between humor and seriousness, A Bronx Tale is a captivating story that echoes in the minds of audiences long after the curtain has closed.
Opening with “Belmont Avenue,” the first act sets up a strong ambience for the rest of the play, immediately drawing the audience into the story. An older Calogero sings of his childhood, describing the Italian neighborhood he grew up in and recounting the events that led to his first interaction with Sonny. The beginning of the first act follows a young Calogero, with the older version appearing frequently to remark on his childhood actions. This adds a new perspective that helps the audience understand without breaking momentum. Following his first interaction with Sonny, the scene shifts to a heart-to-heart conversation with Calogero’s father Lorenzo, immediately establishing the contrast between the two men, a theme that will become a prominent feature of the play. Calogero begins rolling dice for Sonny as shown in the memorable song “Roll ‘Em” and as the song progresses, Calogero becomes more enthralled by the excitement of the game and the energy of Sonny and the crew. Sonny grows fond of the kid, nick-naming him “C,” and takes him under his wing giving him advice and a cut of their profits. This is only the beginning of what will become a long time commitment to Sonny’s crew. Lorenzo is distressed by Sonny’s sudden interest in his son and tries to set Calogero straight, but Calogero has fallen in love with Sonny’s lifestyle and ignores his father’s warnings.
Halfway through the first act, the play transitions to an older Calogero who has been running with Sonny for eight years and has become like a son to him. After a violent encounter between Sonny’s gang and a group of bikers, Lorenzo tries to reason with Calogero, reminding him of the values he taught him as a child in “These Streets.” He wants to help his son follow his heart and use his talents for good. Calogero is determined not to live a boring life like his father, but Lorenzo refuses to leave his son. The act ends on a climactic note with Calogero forced to choose between the two most important men in his life. With overlapping calls of Calogero and C, the dramatic ending to the song is accompanied by a visual parallel between Sonny and Lorenzo representing Calogero’s inner struggle between the two father figures. The act closes as Calogero storms away, refusing to make a decision.
The second act opens on Webster Avenue with Jane, an African American girl Calogero met at school, and her friends. The song begins similarly to “Belmont Avenue” with melodic notes, and Calogero returns as his older self to introduce the audience to the scene. While there are many similarities to “Belmont Avenue,” “Webster Avenue” has a slightly different beat and tone representing the key differences between the two cultures. Visually, the dancing in the two songs looks completely different further separating the African American neighborhood from the Italians. The second act further explores the racial tensions briefly introduced in the first act as Calogero’s relationship with Jane progresses. The romantic relationship is the weakest part of the play as it seems a bit frivolous and out of place, especially given the fact that it doesn’t last long. However, it is through his relationship with Jane and the subsequent events that Calogero grows and learns some very important lessons. The romance helps to introduce the element of racial tension while also helping to progress the plot as Calogero is forced to make many hard decisions. The racial tensions between the African Americans living on Webster Avenue and the Italians on Belmont Avenue was an unexpected but thought-provoking element of the play. The audience gets a Romeo and Juliet type situation as Calogero and Jane slowly fall for each other. Their relationship is cute and awkward as any first love, but thankfully it doesn’t take over the story too much. Reinforcing the theme of love or fear, Calogero must choose whether to follow his love or give in to the fear of crossing the societal boundaries.
When the play starts out, it seems like it will simply be a story of Calogero struggling to choose between two father figures in his life, but in the end, it is much more than that. The dynamic between Sonny and Lorenzo is perhaps the strongest element of the play. The actions and words of the two men overlap in many ways and in the end neither man is wholly good or bad. When Calogero reveals his interest in Jane to both men, Lorenzo warns him not to get involved with an African American girl, while Sonny encourages the relationship; Sonny gets him involved in a bar fight, while Lorenzo tries to bring him home. There are many parallels between Lorenzo and Sonny that show they are more similar than the audience is led to believe. Both men agree that “the saddest thing in life is wasted talent” and encourage Calogero to stay in school and work hard.
There are two stand out moments in the play where Calogero is struck by one of his father figures and, feeling betrayed, tries to leave them behind. However, neither of them abandon Calogero despite his frustration. Lorenzo continues to look after his son even as Calogero grows closer to Sonny and curses Lorenzo’s way of life. Later, Sonny stops Calogero from making a stupid decision despite his previous anger. Although these moments are quite far apart, they present the strongest parallel between Sonny and Lorenzo illustrating to the audience that both men truly care for Calogero. Even Lorenzo, at the end of the play, recognizes the good Sonny did for Calogero and thanks him for saving his son, saying, “I never hated you. I guess I just never forgave you for making my son grow up so fast.” The play does not portray one as better than the other because the point isn’t to make Calogero choose, but to show that he is able to become his own person through the guidance of both Lorenzo and Sonny. This complicated dynamic, portrayed through singing and acting, is what makes the play unique and memorable.
Sonny is a fascinating character to follow. Despite his violent and amoral lifestyle, he isn’t the villain of the play. He takes Calogero under his wing, taking care of him and treating him like a son, repeatedly saying, “I love this kid.” Sonny presents himself as untouchable and refuses to trust anyone. In the song “Nicky Machiavelli,” he teaches Calogero that fear is more important than love. His words seem to suggest that he doesn’t care about anyone, but his actions suggest a more complicated view. He uses his reputation as “cappo di tutti cappi” to protect Calogero: he loans Calogero his car for the kid’s first date and even saves Calogero’s life at the end of the play. Sonny even tries to convince Calogero to leave life on the streets because he wants Calogero to live a good life. Sonny was never supposed to be the villain that steals Calogero away from his real father: he is a man who does the best he can to guide and protect the kid he cares about. Reflecting the true message of the play, Calogero thanks Sonny in the final song saying, “I’m here because just once, you chose to love.”
A Bronx Tale combines humor and hijinks with more serious topics of love, fear, and family to create a lively and entertaining musical. The cast at the National Theatre gave a convincing performance that made the audience laugh and cry. Does it live up to the standards set by the legends on Broadway? Who knows. Nevertheless, A Bronx Tale provides guaranteed entertainment through a story about an Italian-American boy, the two father figures in his life, and his quest to find his place in the world. A Bronx Tale closes as it began with a Calogero narrating to the audience and four doo-wop singers, bringing a story of love and fear full circle.
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