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THEATER REVIEW

No offense, but 'Bronx' ain't fresco

September 12, 2008|Charles McNulty | Times Theater Critic

Now listen, Chazz, I mean Mr. Palminteri, I'm not looking for trouble here. Only a dope would criticize a man with your connections, um, talent. And it's not as if I'm about to give the thumbs-down to "A Bronx Tale," which I caught Wednesday at the Wadsworth Theatre. Seventy-percent of the time (I swear on my Italian ancestors) I was completely engrossed. With your colorful stories, you could spellbind Yankee Stadium. As for the rest of the show, well, I was admiring your spiffy dark suit and the way you've kept yourself in fighting shape.

No, I'm not buttering you up. Why would I? This semiautobiographical gangster yarn of yours is one of a kind -- all right, maybe one of a dozen, but don't start faulting me for cliches. And I just love how you carefully packed the piece like a ravioli box with lessons about growing up the Martin Scorsese way.

Sure, some might find all this nostalgia for your Bronx beginnings a bit dicey. But who could question your faith in the material? This solo show, dating all the way back to a 1989 gig at a bite-sized Hollywood outfit, ignited your career like one of those coin-operated cathedral votives.

First there was the successful run in L.A., then off-Broadway, and it wasn't long before offers floated in to transform "A Bronx Tale" into a movie, which you had the guts to turn down until the one and only Robert De Niro came along. Nice move. De Niro's directing debut might not have amounted to a second "GoodFellas," but with you playing mobster Sonny and De Niro playing bus-driving dad Lorenzo, both wrestling to control the mind of Calogero (I almost said young Chazz!), the acting was as unforgettable as the image of your mother dipping some bread for you in her Sunday sauce.

But a lot of water has passed under the Triborough Bridge. In addition to all the mobster movies, there was that HBO series that left a hole in all our hearts. What I'm trying to get across, Mr. Palminteri, is that after "The Sopranos," your subject isn't as fresh as it used to be and your manner isn't exactly al dente.

Bring on the goombah

Before you get upset with me, though, let me say that the first part of your show really ropes us in. The way you crowd the stage with the characters from your childhood and adolescence just by balling up your face into a fist or talking goonishly out of the side of your mouth is hilarious. Your sketches (even if bordering on cartoons) should crown you the Dickens of 187th Street and Belmont Avenue.

Sonny, obviously, is the most compelling figure (the bad guy with a sensitive soul always is). This mob kingpin who takes Calogero under his wing is more than just a goombah stereotype. You let us see his classiness, the morality in his immorality and his unkillable loyalty. He's cynical, an outer-borough "Nick Machiavelli," but not cynically drawn. You capture the father-son bond that develops between Sonny and this 9-year-old stoop-dwelling kid, who falls into his good graces by not ratting him out to the police. I almost never cry in the theater, but I heard a few sniffles in their final scene.

No complaints about Calogero's real father, Lorenzo, either. This hard-working man tries to set an example for his boy in a neighborhood that seems to value criminal celebrity over blue-collar honesty. And the moral he teaches his son about not wasting his God-given talent (though repeated maybe one time too many) helps us understand what's driving this cooked-up trip down memory lane for the adult "C," the respected character actor. (Ask me, you should have won an Oscar for "Bullets Over Broadway.")

That's one busy day

Nothing personal, but Calogero doesn't create much of an impression. We meet him at 9 and then 17, and basically all that has changed are his hormones.

Also, the plot goes heavy on the melodrama. The Bronx is a tough place, but a racial standoff, an attempted car bombing, a gang war and a mafia hit -- bing, bang, boom -- make for an unusually busy day even in this neck of the woods.

Now don't get me wrong, Mr. Palminteri: "A Bronx Tale" comes off without a hitch onstage.

Your boy, veteran Jerry Zaks, deserves a pat on the back for keeping the story rolling. And though the saga may have aged, you still tell it like it happened only yesterday.

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charles.mcnulty@ latimes.com

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"A Bronx Tale," Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd, Brentwood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 21. $40 to $78, premiums also available. (213) 365-3500. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

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