Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale
(© Joan Marcus)
Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale
(© Joan Marcus)
Chazz Palminteri deserves boundless praise for bringing A Bronx Tale, the 95-minute solo piece about growing up around local gangsters at 187th Street and Belmont Avenue in his beloved borough, to Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre nearly two decades after debuting it Off-Broadway. Cooking on all burners, Palminteri plays all the characters in the story of two unforgettable men from his childhood and how profoundly they influenced the man he became: his bus-driver father Lorenzo and a mobster called Sonny, who's honed his underworld skills by combining street smarts with a close reading of Niccolo Machiavelli. (In the expanded 1993 film version of A Bronx Tale, it's made clear that Sonny -- played by Palminteri -- read The Prince during a 10-year prison term.)

In most stories where two men vie for the mind of a young man -- particularly when they are nominally good influence versus bad - only one prevails. It's a huge and unexpected plus in Palminteri's play that he understands he benefited from both men through the years he spent in their separate wakes. Although Lorenzo and Sonny have an early confrontation over young Cologio Lorenzo Romano Alfredo Palminteri -- whom Sonny nicknames "C" -- Lorenzo wisely curbs his disapproval while his son is shepherded around as something of a protected gangland mascot. Lorenzo plainly understands that his son is intelligent enough to absorb the best and leave the rest offered by the not unkind though sometimes brutal Sonny.

In the main Bronx tale, Palminteri recalls how, at nine years old, he worshiped Sonny but never spoke to him until he lied to police after witnessing Sonny shoot a man in a parking-rage dispute. When questioned later at a street line-up, he chose not to identify Sonny -- a gesture his father summarized as doing "a good thing for a bad man." Subsequently, Sonny took C into his confidence, dispensing wise lessons about hard knocks while giving the impressionable lad access to many of his shadier involvements -involvements that led to a final shoot-out that C saw coming but could do nothing to prevent.

Supplementing the Sonny saga are Palminteri's reminiscences of daily life on 187th Streets as he watched it unfold from a stoop nicely replicated on this spare set by designer James Noone. He recalls his devotion to Dion and the Belmonts, who took their name from the street where they lived and made a capella recording history that sound designer John Gromada pipes in. He describes and carefully impersonates the local characters who passed by that magic stoop and hung out next door in Chez Joey. These lively figures, whom Damon Runyon might have enjoyed knowing, included owner Rudy Ice; hard-luck gambler Eddie Mush; Frankie Coffee Cake of the coffee-cake complexion; and Jojo the Whale, who was so lardy he had to breathe between every sentence.

Talented men recalling their upbringing in bildungsroman-like theater pieces can be a tour de force, as Billy Crystal, standing in front of a replica of his home, demonstrated two seasons ago in 700 Sundays. Now Palminteri does it, thanks in part to Jerry Zaks' detailed bravura direction. Palminteri -- whom cynics might think has taken the Broadway step due to a flagging Hollywood career -- acts, or reenacts, his past with precision, gusto, and honest emotion.

But A Bronx Tale is also more than tour de force, because underlying Palminteri's every word and gesture is palpable love and gratitude. It is appreciation for Sonny and his father that ultimately makes Palminteri's unsentimentalized recollections shiny as a gem Sonny could have flashed in his pinky ring.

When the young Palminteri was being gently guided by his affectionate father, he asked, "Do I have talent, Daddy?" Lorenzo said yes and then added, "Just remember what I'm telling you: The saddest thing is wasted talent. Don't waste yours." In A Bronx Tale, Palminteri isn't wasting one speck of it.