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REVIEW: Thrilling A Bronx Tale Opens (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

The cast of the national touring company of A Bronx Tale, which opened at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN on Tuesday. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The real crime in A Bronx Tale is that child actor Frankie Leoni isn’t featured after the first several scenes. Sure, there’s violence, gambling, and outright murder going on – but after seeing Leoni’s effusive energy, charisma, and triple threat of acting, singing, and dancing, you really kind of wish that the whole show was about Young Calogero.

A Bronx Tale, now playing at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, is a coming of age tale set in New York City during the 1960s. The protagonist, Calogero, grows up in the Little Italy neighborhood of the Bronx; as the opening number proclaims, it (almost) all unfolds on Belmont Avenue. He soon falls under the mentorship of Sonny (Joe Barbara), setting off a long-running tension between the glamor of the outskirts of organized crime and the simple virtues extolled by his father Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake).

Right: Joe Barbara (Sonny) and Richard H. Blake (Lorenzo) as dueling parental figures. At table: John Gardiner, Robert Pieranunzi, and Paul Salvatoriello. Photo by Joan Marcus.

One of the virtues of A Bronx Tale is that it’s a compact, well-told tale that flies by. The libretto was written by Chazz Palminteri, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater; hearing a song or listening to a monologue, you don’t instantly think of any of these writers – which is a good thing. Neither do the surface comparisons to Jersey Boys stick in your mind past the opening scene; this show has a distinct sound of its own, filled with rich songs. The high-energy sequence of “Roll ‘Em” and “I Like It” (both of which heavily feature the excellent Leoni) is about as perfect a one-two combo as ever can be found, and even just the premise makes songs like “Nicky Machiavelli” and “Hurt Someone” memorable.

There’s a lot of dancing in this stylized, high-energy tale, with choreography by Sergio Trujillo and direction by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks. Some of the most thrilling scenes are when the swing-jazz pop of the Italian neighborhood starts to collide with the Motown/soul vibe of the African-American neighborhood next door, an overlap that carries over interestingly into some of the songs. When Act I comes to an end with “These Streets”, it seems like no time has passed, despite 10 substantial musical numbers marching by.

Joe Barbara (Sonny) and Frankie Leoni (Young C) with the national touring company of A Bronx Tale. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The central tension in this musical is not the love interest, but the tug of war between Joe Barbara’s on-point Sonny and Calogero’s father Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) over Calogero’s present and future. The rivalry occasions several poignant songs about fatherhood and how to model your life, soulfully sung by Blake. Calogero’s mother, Rosina (Michelle Aravena) is underused in this male-centered narrative, but sings a moving “Look to Your Heart” reprise in the second act.

A Bronx Tale feels at once both familiar and novel; the general setting is familiar, even if the particular story feels new. It makes a strong evening at the theatre, with time left over for a late dinner before you head home. You might want to come back again, though, just to see Frankie Leoni rock it in scene after scene. Keep an eye on that kid, he’s going places.

A Bronx Tale plays through February 24 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine