CD Review: A BRONX TALE (Original Broadway Cast on Ghostlight Records)

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by Tony Frankel on May 13, 2017



It began as a 1989 solo play written by and starring Chazz Palminteri. Robert DeNiro saw this coming-of-age saga and became the powerhouse behind the well-received 1993 film which he starred in and directed. The story concerns Calogero (or “C”), an Italian lad who had a brief flirt with organized crime and a mobster named Sonny (much to the chagrin of C’s bus-driving pop, Lorenzo), and an equally brief flirt with Jane, an African-American girl in his racially divided neighborhood during the turbulent sixties. Now, DeNiro and Palminteri team up again on a musicalized version of A Bronx Tale, which opened on Broadway last December to so-so reviews.

While we do get a sense of how the story unfolds on the CD released today from Ghostlight Records, all we care about for repeat listening is the songs. While a few range from fetching to uplifting, mostly they’re run-of-the-mill. The score comes from the Sister Act team of Glenn Slater and Alan Menken. Menken has yet to find a perfect partner since the great Howard Ashman died in 1991, but he’s a pro at creating melodies that conjure a period of American music. As much as I disliked Sister Act (“nunbearable,” I called it) the tactless and commercial musical certainly evoked 1978 Philadelphia.

With A Bronx Tale, Menken returns to the doo-wop style that underscored his Little Shop of Horrors, (lyrics by Ashman), and the ‘60s pop sound looms large here; the substantial opening number “Belmont Avenue,” which gets a robust performance from the ensemble, works equally well as an ode to Billy Joel. Whereas Little Shop amalgamated a time period with Broadway pizzazz, Bronx Tale sounds mostly derivative, as if we were listening to the B-side of a 45-rpm. Three tunes that stand out: “I Like It,” sung by a 9-year-old Calogero (Hudson Loverro); “One of the Great Ones,” Sonny’s (Nick Cordero) swinging ode to women; and “Out of Your Head,” a catchy duet between an older C (Bobby Conte Thornton) and Jane (Ariana DeBose). No matter the material, melodious Menken never fails to write canorous tunes, even if they’re passable more than great. It’s because of him, a knock out cast, and orchestrator Doug Besterman (who creates a mix of pop and Broadway that the show does not) that this CD is a pleasant enough excursion.

Bringing down the entire affair is one of the greatest and luckiest hacks in the history of musical comedy: Glenn Slater, who thinks cute rhyming is great songwriting. The hit shows he has had were not hits because of lyrics: Sister Act; School of Rock; and additional lyrics for The Little Mermaid (well, not a hit per se but closed early on Broadway so any national tour would have more strength). And when he first collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Weber on Love Never Dies, the 2010 Phantom of the Opera sequel, the criticism of his clunky lyrics paved the way for a lyric doctor–original Phantom lyricist Charles Hart; this is the version that begins a North American tour this year without having ever played Broadway (do you see what I mean by “lucky”?).

Slater’s soft-serve, trite, and sentimental lyrics don’t get inside a character, they simplify them with a rash of clichés: “Those eyes that knock me to my knees”; “And the pushcart peddlers, They hawk their wares door to door”; “We have a bond that nothing’s gonna sever”; “All the choices we make…ev’ry joy and ache”; “It’s never black and white, just shades of grey”; “The feeling’s so strong”; and “When push comes down to shove” are just the beginning from this “soft as macaroni” wordsmith.

Reminiscent of Jersey Boys and West Side Story, but with none of the bite, A Bronx Tale is a sterling example of middle-of-the-road musicals that can’t–or won’t–blend styles from the past into a new and exciting recipe. So until a gourmet recipe of meaty Italian sauce comes along, we have to settle for bottled Ragu.

photos by Joan Marcus

A Bronx Tale
Ghostlight Records
1 disc | 19 tracks | 58:36 minutes
released May 12, 2017
available at Ghostlight and Amazon

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