A Bronx Tale
Is it better to be loved or feared? This question gets to the heart of A Bronx Tale, Chazz Palmenteri’s tour de force currently ready to enthrall you at the Marcus Center’s Uilein Hall. The story takes place in the 1960s in (you guessed it) the Bronx and centers around a boy, Calogero (“C”), and his respect and loyalty for two very different men. Lorenzo is the boy’s father, a hard working, well-liked individual who cares for his son a great deal. On the other end of the spectrum is Sonny, a nefarious street boss who commands respect in the neighborhood through intimidation. Both men play an important role in the life of the boy and each one contributes to the boy’s eventual learned values. Conflict ensues when Lorenzo objects to Calogero’s over exposure to the immoral, yet street smart Sonny.
Growing up in the Bronx is a concept so far removed from my own formative years spent in the bucolic areas of Racine county, writing this review makes me feel, in a way, like a fish writing about algebra. Or, given my comparative lack of understanding of anything mathematical, it’s like me trying to review algebra. However, love and fear are really the only two emotions that matter in any given situation for anyone. Boiled down, all of our actions, daily, yearly, moment to moment, are motivated by one or the other. Young C learns to balance these two motivators throughout the story. What C learns from Sonny about girls he balances against his father’s prejudice. And in turn, what C learns from his from his father about trust he bounces off Sonny’s paranoia. When the story ends, C has grown into a young man with all the emotional tools necessary to make it in the world that is neither Sonny’s way nor his father’s, but his own way.
Chazz Palminteri being such the powerhouse performer that he is, it’s a virtual breeze to forgive some of the cartoony aspects of the story, especially when you find out the one-man-play is also written by Palminteri. This is not an ego thing. Palminteri deserves to be performing his own work. Some of the characters are there solely for humorous effect and don’t add much to the story: there is a fat man, who was so fat his shadow once killed a dog, and a guy nicknamed Coffee Cake because of his bad acne. These characters do, however, help create an entire milieu for the spine of the narrative to run through. Plus, Palminteri commits so much of his entire being to each of these characters, it’s almost like you’re seeing eighteen different actors perform the piece instead of just one.
Although mostly a theatre director, Jerry Zaks is a name you might recognize from the credits of one of your favorite television shows. He has won multiple Tony awards and for A Bronx Tale no amount of his talent or well-earned acclaim is left in reserve. Directing a one-man show in which the performer plays nearly twenty different roles things could easily become a muddied theatrical mess, but Zaks puts Palminteri effortlessly and cleanly through the hoops of his all his characters without a slip. The entire stage, up, down, and around is utilized to it’s fullest potential. Even when Palminteri is playing multiple roles in a fast-paced tension-laced dialogue exchange everything is so intricately blocked and timed the audience knows exactly what’s going on and is never confused.
The play takes place on a street on the corner of 187th and Belmont. The three piece set is comprised of the street corner sign post, the front stoop of a house, and the exterior of a bar. All three pieces are large and exaggerated but not to the point of being Broadway extravagant or obnoxious and provide an appropriate backdrop for the memory story of a young man. Some of the lighting effects, such as the flashing reds to help create the reality of a raging fire happening off stage, are unnecessary and are more distracting than helpful.
So, is it better to be loved or feared? Without giving away too much, A Bronx Tale teaches us that both have value, but one without the other can be fatal. In any situation, given the streets of the Bronx or here in the rural lands of the Midwest, the lesson is universal. Neither love or fear is much good without also learning respect, respect for others and respect for yourself.
Complete schedule and ticket information for all Milwaukee’s stages can be found at Footlights online.