A Bronx ‘Stale': Robert De Niro's Broadway Directorial Debut Falls Flat

Nostalgia, when used properly in a new musical, can feel like a warm hug and a slap in the face at the same time. It can simultaneously remind you the best things about a time period, while waking you up to how much the world has or hasn't changed since. Think "Hairspray," "The Color Purple" or even "Ragtime."

But when done poorly, the trend can come off tired and cliché. Like a bad cover of a great song on a reality singing competition, it can feel like a watered-down version of what once was — and make you question the purpose of the story as a whole. 

Unfortunately, that's the feeling evoked throughout "A Bronx Tale" — the musical staging of Chazz Palminteri's often-told, '60s-set story now open at Broadway's Longacre Theatre. Despite the best efforts of its cast and creative team, this once-exciting story comes across stale and banal. 

It's a shame too, because "A Bronx Tale" has assembled some truly talented folks to help give life to its story — about a mob boss who takes a young boy under his wing, and an interracial relationship that threatens to cause a neighborhood war.

There's music and lyrics from Alan Menken and Glenn Slater — the team behind stage adaptations of popular films "The Little Mermaid," "Sister Act" and "Leap of Faith." A book adaptation from Palminteri himself. And direction from four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks (of "Guys and Dolls," another gangster tale), who staged a non-musical version of the show on Broadway in 2007.

And then there's Zaks' co-director, Robert De Niro. The two-time Oscar winner made his big picture directorial debut with the 1993 film adaptation, and makes his stage directorial debut here.

It's unclear how he and Zaks worked together. One might expect that Zaks moved the action during the show's bigger musicals numbers, while De Niro lent his expertise to its book scenes, though neither components are strong enough to match either director's skill.

Menken and Slater's doo-wop and Motown-style tunes don't do them any favors. As a whole, the score feels far too vanilla and somewhat forgettable. (Menken's "Little Shop of Horrors" score — set in a similar time period — is far more catchy).

There is one bright spot throughout, and that's actor Nick Cordero as Belmont Avenue's reigning gangster Sonny (played by Palminteri in previous incarnations of the story). Cordero's gruff tone and non-nonsense demeanor captivates whenever he's on stage — and will make you wish his character was given the chance to reveal more of his internal motivations.

Cordero received a Tony nomination for playing another role originated by Palminteri — in 2014's "Bullets Over Broadway" — showing he does good gangster.

Bobby Conte Thornton, who narrates the story as Sonny's now grown-up protege Calogero, makes a fine Broadway debut, though his character sadly doesn't get much to do until Act II (a sweet but pitchy Hudson Loverro plays a younger version of Calogero earlier). Thornton is forced to rush the musical through its entire racial subplot without much time to breathe, a disappointment since he shows hints of depth that would have been lovely to see explored.

The stunning Ariana DeBose (of "Hamilton" fame) does the best she can as Calogero's love interest, Jane. But as only one of two female characters given names and speaking roles in the show, her role is written remarkably thin. 

Set designer Beowulf Boritt has been featured for weeks now on a television commercial for HP Spectre x360 and Windows 10, showing off his creations for "A Bronx Tale." They're beautiful to see in person. But like his commercial, that joy only lasts about 30 seconds.

"A Bronx Tale" has had many incarnations in its history — a one-man show, a movie, a play, and now a musical. This last version is by far its most ambitious (it comes to New York after a tryout in New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse last winter). But it's also a harsh reminder that some stories don't need reinvention. 

“A Bronx Tale,” at The Longacre Theatre, 220 W 48th St. Tickets: $50-$187. Call 212-239-6200 or visit abronxtalethemusical.com.

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