Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
Based on the 1989 one-man play, the new musical version of A Bronx Tale has a startling pedigree. The musical’s book is by Chazz Palminteri who not only wrote the original play, but also wrote the screenplay for (and starred in) the 1993 movie adaptation. The show is co-directed by the original directors of the play (Jerry Zaks) and movie (none other than Robert DeNiro) and the songs are by the successful partnership of Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. Such a high profile and experienced team should perhaps result in magic. Unfortunately on the strength of this new cast recording, A Bronx Tale seems not quite equal to the sum of its parts.
Based in the Bronx area of New York during the 1960s, this is a story of young Calogero as he gets led into organized crime by the charming Sonny much to the dismay of his upstanding father Lorenzo. The story is a basic Faustian fable that is pretty much a staple of all Mafia movies (The Godfather, Goodfellas et al). The era and setting prompt immediate comparisons to Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli is actually name-checked in the opening number) and Menken’s score evokes memories of not only Four Seasons hits, but of other styles from the era including doo-wop and the works of Phil Spector.
Menken has shown great versatility across his career and is surely one of musical theatre’s greatest living composers. He has already visited similar musical territory in Little Shop of Horrors but despite containing some catchy songs and authentic beats this is not Menken at his best. Many of the songs verge on parody with the likes of Nicky Machiavelli being as close to Bobby Darin’s Mack the Knife as the production’s lawyers would probably allow. For anyone else this would be acceptable, but one expects more from the composer of Beauty and the Beast.
In the past Glenn Slater has produced some great lyrics to go with Menken’s music since they were first paired by Disney for Home on the Range (the movie is forgettable but the songs are fun) followed by the stage version of The Little Mermaid, the movie Tangled, and the wonderful Sister Act. Here, however, Slater’s lyrics are unbelievably laboured and literal. Nuance is completely absent from any of the songs which constantly spell out both plot and character motivation. We are introduced to Lorenzo with a song (Look to Your Heart) that creates a caricature saintly father, immediately followed by Sonny’s introduction song (Roll ‘Em) which paints with broad strokes the glamorous but seedy mob lifestyle. The script probably has to carry some of the blame here but Slater’s lyrics mean that these two characters might as well be sitting on the protagonist’s shoulders: one holding a harp, the other a pitchfork. It’s as subtle as a baseball bat to the kneecaps or a horse’s head in your bed.
What raises this recording above mediocre are classy production values and an excellent cast. Standouts are Nick Cordero as Sonny, Richard H. Blake as Lorenzo, an under-used Lucia Giannetta as mother Rosina, and Hudson Loverro and Bobby Conte Thornton as young and older Calogero respectively (Loverro’s I Like It is a real showstopper and may just be the best song in the score.).
Listening to this soundtrack, it’s clear that all of the performers featured are destined for a great future. However, as for the show itself, it’s hardly an offer you can’t refuse.