Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Family Rooted Bronx Tale

Those of us who’ve been tracking my Nth cousin Xce removed Bobby Conte-Thornton’s theatrical career figured it wouldn’t be long before he was appearing on Broadway.

But man, does that kid know how to make an entrance.

He’s appearing as Calogero, the lead in A Bronx Tale which opens tonight in the Longacre Theater on 48th Street.

Between starring in the role, and narrating during the character’s younger days, he’s on stage for a ridiculous percentage of the show. 

I’m sure the fact that his Broadway premier is not only as a focal point, but also playing a “nice Italian boy from the Bronx” in no way heightened his Grandmother’s pride above and beyond where it already was when he gives her a special hand signal at the end of the performance.

 In an amazing bout of timing, when we went to see a Saturday matinee preview we ran into her (his Grandmother/ my mom’s cousin) when she stepped out of the theater so her business partner could get something to eat. 

Our arrival moment was based on us having already eaten from a little “hole in the wall” pizzeria around the corner, instead of walking the ten blocks down Broadway to the sit down place we usually go.  We figured the pizza was good anywhere (Because: Manhattan) and had already made a pit stop in the Broadway Disney store (Because: Us.)

She and Mom got to have a nice long chat beforehand, while the rest of us took the job of telling the ever growing group behind them that we were only loitering and the line was on the other side of the marquee.

Knowing a star’s Grandmother has perks, as we were able to skip the line we had been directing folks to and enter the theater when she re-entered. (Along with her partner’s visiting brother from Hawaii…making my drive seem even shorter than the traffic free event it was.)

As with every Broadway Theater, the Longacre has a personality and history unique to itself that adds to the feeling of every performance being an event.

Obviously, as a fan of the story and a relative of one of the principals, I’m prejudiced, but since it’s cool for me to get a review “published” on the opening day, here are my thoughts.

Granted, the show wasn’t completely locked down when we saw it…but unless everyone involved went crazy and transformed it into Mickey Blue Eyes the Musical two weeks before opening, I’m betting it was pretty close.

The Show Itself:

It’s still directed by Robert De Niro (with Tony Winner Jerry Zaks)  and it’s still written by Chazz Palminteri. (Who came from the specific part of the Bronx as some of the Up the Lake crew, increasing our connection to the story even more.)

Aside:  Bobby had some backstage stories of meeting these two entertainment legends (click here for an interview)  , which made me realize just how soul drainingly dull my job is, yet again.

It’s still the tale inspired by Chazz Palminteri’s one man show about his youth that became the successful 1993 film.

That covers the basic story (It’s a good one) and its execution. (It’s a good one.)

The music is by Disney and Broadway mastermind Alan Menken (Lyrics by Tony nominee Glenn Slater.)  The music is also based around the rock and roll of New York in the 1960’s.

Meaning from a musical standpoint, it’s also a good one.

The play is two hours, instead of what I thought was the standard three. (Uncultured boor that I am, “standard” may be the wrong term here.)

This was definitely a wise choice.  It meant that the narrative followed the film without any additional padding or filler material put in.  Parts of it were told in song, which added emotional content, but the core remained unchanged.

My engineer side geeked out over the sets quite a bit.  They were technologically worthy of that Windows 10 add.  By shifting, sliding, spinning and lighting changes (dang, ran out of “s”es) four structures were admirably used to showcase different sections of the Bronx at multiple times of day.

Cars were important to many of the moments in the film, and the technology rose to the task in this area as well, allowing none of the plot critical scenes to be lost or minimized.

Another aside:  In my younger days, I have used the “Sonny Test” and can vouch for its accuracy.

The Cast:

The theater experience is all about the immediacy of the performers connecting with the audience, and they are what define the success.

No problem with that here either.

The story centers around a conflict of father figures, teenage boys growing up, and gangsters.  This is an excessively guy heavy tale.  Therefore the women in it have both an extra need and challenge to stand out and show their characters’ importance.

This was also not an issue.

Ariana Debose played Jane.  While the love story isn’t the primary plot line or conflict in this coming of age tale, her role was crucial to the overall character arcs.  It’s similar to the “Little Girl” at the end of Jungle Book.  Before my analogy loses everyone:  She has to completely personify being both desirable and inspirational enough to make Calogero not only turn his back on the race opinions of his culture, but also aspire to better himself and grow beyond his neighborhood in general. 

Interestingly, both of his “fathers” vying for his attention wanted that growth for him, but it’s Jane that gets him to fully realize it for himself.  Debose embodied that easily, both in musical and non-musical scenes.  (There’s gotta be some stagey-er way of saying, “non-musical.”  Again, uncultured boor trying his best here.)

Lucia Giannetta as Rosina personified the Italian Mother.  She was the rock- the only one with full understanding of her husband, her son, the environment the family lived in and how it affected them…

And she sang pretty, too.

I think I’ve said this before but, Broadway plays that take place in New York always seem to have a bit of extra magic to them.  The teens of both Webster and Belmont Avenue had an authenticity, with a bit of musical pizazz overlaid.  Similarly, Sonny’s associates were all the larger than life New York gangsters that could bring terror, yet at the same time make my Grandma say, “Our streets were safe enough to play cards under the streetlight until three in the morning.”

(Translation: Her streets were safe for her and the others who lived there…because anyone not from her street who bothered them was in for excessively rough, if not life threatening, times. It was clearly a non-politically correct definition of “safe.”)

A special mention is deserved by Jane’s Brother, Tyrone, played by Bradley Gibson.  In the time he had on stage, he expertly conveyed that he was Calogero’s opposite number from Webster Avenue.  He’s basically a good hearted and honest guy caught up in the neighborhood prejudices and battles.

Hudson Loverro brought Broadway kid awesome to Young Calogero. (Or maybe it was Athan Sporek; we were kind of high up and saw them together after the show.  Bobby’s Grandmother confirmed they’re both excellent, anyway.)  There’s a fine line between a child that can be “big” and projecting enough to fill a Broadway theater and the goofy levels of overacting that come out on most Disney Channel sit coms.  He was well on the crowd pleasing side of that line.

The key roles are the characters vying to be, and the key to the story is the conflict between, Calogero’s father figures.  That triangle is where the production shone brightest.  Their importance over the love story is the reply you give to anyone claiming this tale is a West Side Story clone.

As the true father, Richard H. Blake portrayed Lorenzo, and perfectly showed a parent both frustrated that his son won’t accept the wisdom he knows he’s attained, and fearful not only of his child ending up on the wrong path, but also of his son ending up on the same path he did, instead of something better.

Blake was positively reviewed as Tommy DeVito in Jersey Boys starting in 2014, which lets you know all you need to about his abilities in a fusion of Broadway and Rock and Roll.  I’d guess it’s his real life role as a father that allowed him to bring such honestly into those songs, and show there was love behind his concerns.

Nick Cordero brought Sonny to life on stage. Sonny is the meaty role, and it’s clear why Chazz Palminteri wouldn’t sell the screenplay unless he was cast as him.  Cordero’s rendition was close to Palminteri’s film performance. Really, why mess with perfection when it comes to showing the most powerful man in the neighborhood who hides some intellectual and emotional depths?

It’s an over the top, larger than life role and it should be.  The reason I say this is- although this is based on a true story, Sonny isn’t a “true” Italian Bronx gangster.  He’s a kid’s memory of an Italian Bronx gangster, imparting levels of hyper reality a bit above the norms.  Every aspect is amplified the way a teenager singled out by the King of the Block would remember it.

The largest change between the film and stage roles was the singing.  (Duh.) That highlights the biggest difference between movies and plays. While both contain actors, movies function as a large assembly of artists working together to produce an emotional response in the audience.   That’s true for plays as well, but the intimacy of a live show puts more of that power in the individual performer’s hands.

The Sonny on film can be liked, respected, feared, and even looked up to. 

But it was Nick Cordero’s melancholy end of the song about “One of the Great Ones,“ after C leaves, while looking towards Lorenzo and Rosina together on stage at the same time that lets the audience feel Sonny understands exactly how alone his life choices have made him, and generated sympathy for the character.

As with his the final bow after the show, I saved Bobby for the end. 

Yeah, I said I was prejudiced, but he was damn good.

I’ve talked before about watching him grow as a performer, and it continues in his abilities at singing, dancing, acting and comedy.  When he’s the focus, he owns the room, but when he’s not, he yields the room and supports those who are taking control of it.

This role allowed him to shine in all of those and one other area.

I first saw it in his one man show “Blame it On My Youth” at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below. 

That viewing was on YouTube, because I’m sadly well past the age where I can function the next day at work after a weeknight out in Manhattan.

Bobby is an amazing Storyteller. (Capitalized on purpose) That’s a separate set of skills from playing the lead in a Broadway musical.

Functioning as the narrator of the show allowed him to expertly display that other area of his performing toolkit.

As I admitted repeatedly, I know I’m prejudiced…which is kind of ironic considering one of the main themes of this show.

However, as an experienced engineer, I always try to provide empirical data.

First of all, the show got a standing ovation.  There weren’t enough of us there to cause that on our own.

After the show, we were allowed to enter the stage door with Bobby’s Grandmother to see him, instead of waiting in the outside crowd. 


We congratulated him, and any cast members who passed us on the way to the door.

Because his Italian Grandmother visited him, Bobby naturally had to put his homemade cookies away before coming out to meet the fans.

We were well across the street helping his Grandmother to the restaurant she was having dinner at when he came out the stage door to cheers and screams that echoed down 48th Street.

To continue a Bronx Italian tradition (which also applies to New Jersey Peruvians), pulling out of the garage North and East of the theater onto 8th Street to get back on 57th and eventually the Henry Hudson was about a million times easier than the garage I picked last time that was South and West of the theater and put us on 6th.

In other words, even though my wife wasn’t with us, she was right again.  

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