October 27, 2007

"A Bronx Tale" Well Told

In the tortoise and the hare nostalgia derby between the 1950s and the 1960s, the '50s is pulling ahead. At least on Broadway. Memories of the '60s may be flashier but for the past two years, Jersey Boys has been packing in audiences willing to pay up to $350 for a premium ticket to relive the behind-the-music story of the hit '50s group The Four Seasons. Grease, despite so-so reviews, is playing to nearly full houses of people joyously cheering on Danny, Sandy and the rest of the ducktailed and bobby-soxed gang at Rydell High. And now comes A Bronx Tale, Chazz Palminteri’s one-man memory play about growing up under the dual protection, and competing loyalties, of his bus driver father and a local Mafiosi in the outer-borough neighborhood made famous by another boy group, Dion and the Belmonts. To my great surprise, A Bronx Tale turns out to be my favorite.

I say surprise because one-man shows can be tricky. I knew better than to even mention seeing this one to my husband K, who is unabashedly biased against them. My frequent theatergoing buddy Bill agreed to go with me but I wasn't so excited about seeing A Bronx Tale myself. I had seen, and liked well enough, the 1993 movie starring Robert De Niro as the dad and Palminteri as the mobster but I hadn't seen the off-Broadway stage production when it played in 1989 and I couldn't imagine how Palminteri was going to reduce the movie’s 20-plus characters to a cast of one. The answer: with an engaging vivacity that fills the stage.

Palminteri is a gifted raconteur and he switches from character to character with the natural ease of everyone's favorite storyteller at the family reunion confident that he can make his listeners enjoy his tale as much as he does. And he gets just the right amount of support from Jerry Zak's subtle direction and James Noone’s simple but evocative set. The show reminded me at times of Billy Crystal's one-man memoir about his boyhood covering roughly the same time period. During both shows, I could almost hear the audience purring with pleasure. Which made me think about why we've fallen so under the spell of a decade once considered uptight and colorless when compared to the Technicolor pyrotechnics of the next one.

In recent years works like Phillip Roth's "American Pastoral" and Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out have cast a rueful eye on the turbulence of the post-Kennedy assassination era of the1960s and that seems to have deepened our affection for the tortoise-like calm of the earlier decade. We know that the fifties weren't as placid as we now fantasize—there was McCarthyism and racial segregation and blatant sexism and homophobia—but we find some undefined comfort in thinking of it as an idyllic time. A Bronx Tale profits from that longing for the innocence and ignorance of our childhood years. Sure, the jokes are old-fashioned and the storyline familiar but in Palminteri's hands, it's a tale well told and one that I was happy to listen to.

1 comment:

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

You know, I agree completely with everything you've said here. I went in with a bit of trepidation and didn't expect to enjoy, but Palminteri succeeded in getting me into the palm of his hand! I enjoyed much more than Jersey Boys.