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NY Theater Reviews

Chazz Palminteri

STREET SMARTS

By Mervyn Rothstein

Chazz Palminteri's A Bronx Tale is a heartfelt remembrance of a past life. So what if it verges on the sentimental, it's still the real thing.

It's a thrice-told A Bronx Tale that's playing at the Walter Kerr Theater. But age, or repetition, has not diminished Chazz Palminteri's story, based on his own childhood, of a 9-year-old boy, his bus-driver father and the mobster who befriends the young Calogero (Palminteri's actual first name).

The tale began life as a one-man play, performed in California and Off Broadway, at Playhouse 91, in 1989. It was made into a movie in 1993 by Robert De Niro, who directed and portrayed the father. Palminteri took on the role of Sonny, the neighborhood Mafia boss who hangs out on the corner outside Calogero's home, at East 187th Street and Belmont Avenue, in a very Italian section of the Bronx.

Now A Bronx Tale has returned again as a one-man show, 90 minutes long, but this time on Broadway, and with Jerry Zaks directing. And the story remains as compelling (if at times overly sentimental) as it was originally. Palminteri, in his Broadway debut, is likable and charismatic, commanding the stage with apparent ease, portraying 18 characters - some perhaps a bit too caricaturish, but vivid nonetheless. He can make the audience laugh one minute, and the next he can grip them in the story's inherent drama.

For those who haven't seen the movie: It is 1960, the era of Dion and the Belmonts (the rock group that, Palminteri notes, began close to that very corner). The Yankees will lose the World Series to a last-inning home run by Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates, and John F. Kennedy will be elected president. The neighborhood is populated by the likes of Eddie Mush, a perennial loser who, when he goes to the race track, gets a ticket from the cashier that is already ripped up. And by Jo Jo the Whale, five-feet-ten and 400 pounds, of whom legend has it that his shadow once killed a dog.

One day on that street corner, Calogero sees Sonny, in sharkskin suit and diamond pinkie ring, take out a gun and kill a man as a result of an argument over a parking space. The boy is urged by his father not to rat on Sonny to the police - to do a good thing for a bad man. It is, after all, a neighborhood ruled by fear, where snitching is the worst thing imaginable. When the boy refuses to identify Sonny as the one who pulled the trigger, Sonny befriends him. And Calogero, over his father's objections, willingly becomes the mobster's apprentice.

We cut to 1968, eight years later, a time of severe racial tension, when a 17-year-old Calogero falls in love with a black girl, a definite neighborhood no-no. In a violent denouement, racial strife flares, and the killing that started it all comes full circle.

Yes, perhaps it is all a bit too pat, and moralistic, and sweetened. But it works. Zaks directs swiftly, and invisibly. James Noone's set - streetlamp, local bar and Calogero's building, stoop and all - strips the neighborhood to the basics and successfully evokes its aura, setting the stage, as it were, for Palminteri's heartfelt remembrance of things past.

When Calogero was 9, his gangster mentor told him that the saddest thing in life is wasted talent. Don't waste yours. Palminteri, a veteran of more than 50 movies, and an Oscar nominee for Bullets Over Broadway, has certainly not wasted his.

The 90 minutes spent in his company offer a pleasant evening's entertainment. So for A Bronx Tale, let us give thonx.