A Bronx Tale
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 31, 2007
Chazz Palminteri's one-man show A Bronx Tale is a terrific evening's entertainment. Palminteri is as assured a raconteur as anyone I've ever seen; he reminded me of Jackie Mason in his command of the stage and the audience (and also, I might add, for his spinning of well-known ethnic stereotypes into a kind of gold). This is as fine an example of this sort of show as one can hope for; if the piece sort of peters out at the end, it's deftly engaging the rest of the time.
The particular Tale that Palminteri is telling here is of his own childhood, in the 1960s in his Bronx neighborhood—the corner of 187th and Belmont, the place that spawned (and lent its name to) Dion and the Belmonts. On that corner, Palminteri tells us, the local mob boss, Sonny, held court most of the day every day. When Palminteri was nine years old, he witnessed a mob hit from his stoop; when the cops came to question him, he remained true to the code of the street and refused to "rat out" Sonny. In return for this favor, he won Sonny's undying and unconditional gratitude.
What follows is a tall tale of a childhood passed under the watchful eye of his own father, Lorenzo, an honest, hard-working, tough-loving bus driver, and under the more lenient eye of surrogate dad/glamorous (and wealthy!) tough guy Sonny. Is it 100% true? Probably not; but it's so vividly detailed and so skillfully rendered that it doesn't pay to ponder the veracity of A Bronx Tale. Instead, savor the rich flavors of a mythic, if not-so-long-ago, past; and enjoy the company of an eccentric cast of characters that includes Sonny's colorful henchmen and hangers-on (like Jojo the Whale, a guy who supposedly weighed 400 pounds and never stopped talking about food) as well as young Chazz's parents, friends, and first love (an African American girl named Jane, whose race ultimately figures significantly in the events of this story).
Palminteri shares his reminiscences with a natural ease that belies the complexity of this show. He plays himself and all of these varied characters more or less simultaneously, recreating conversations involving roomfuls of people with consummate skill—even though it's just this one actor on stage, we see all that he describes and re-enacts in our mind's eye. For this we have Palminteri the writer to thank: the language is dazzlingly detailed. He gets the rhythms of these men's lives exactly right—how they talk, how they move, how they feel. And even if the characters and locales trade in the familiar archetypes of every Italian-American wiseguy movie since Little Caesar, the presentation feels authentic and, more important, affectionate. Palminteri embraces the ethos of his neighborhood and fills it with love, warmth, and humor.
The production is deceptively simple and expertly executed. Under the direction of Jerry Zaks, all of the elements—Paul Gallo's helpful lighting that establishes time and place effortlessly, James Noone's spare but effective set, and the evocative music and sound by John Gromada—work together seamlessly to show our storyteller to maximum advantage.
I left A Bronx Tale wishing that Palminteri has wrapped his story up a bit more satisfyingly—he ends his remarkable coming-of-age yarn kind of abruptly, without providing much in the way of context, and so we wonder just exactly how he got from there to here. But I was also enormously gratified to have had the opportunity to see this consummate showman and actor at work, at his peak, sharing stories he obviously cherishes with a joyous brio that would have made both Lorenzo and Sonny proud.