You may hope that the coming-of-age-in-a-mobster-neighborhood “A Bronx Tale” won’t get too corny, since Robert De Niro co-directed it, but hey — it’s a musical. Whaddya gonna do? From time to time the show hams it up.
Chazz Palminteri’s semi-autobiographical piece started as a solo act and morphed into De Niro’s 1993 movie directing debut. It’s not an obvious choice for a musical — it ran from 2016 to 2018 on Broadway — but the story of a kid who witnesses a murder and doesn’t rat on the charismatic shooter remains likable enough, if you don’t mind vicious gangland violence and 1960s-era interracial rumbles. Palminteri himself popped onstage for Tuesday night’s curtain call opening this week’s stand of the touring production at the National Theatre.
The doo-wop music is by the prolific Alan Menken (with lyrics by Glenn Slater), and the straightforward sincerity of Palminteri’s lightly veiled memoir briefly wins you over as Lorenzo, the bus driver father of the young eyewitness Calogero, croons the paternal “Look to Your Heart.” A lot of this turf sounds familiar, though. The opening “Belmont Avenue” echoes “Skid Row” from Menken’s “Little Shop of Horrors.” The big philosophical number for Sonny, the shooter who becomes a father figure to Calogero after the kid doesn’t put the finger on him, is a bald homage to Bobby Darin’s finger-snappin’ lounge version of “Mack the Knife.”
When the older teen Calogero falls for a black girl at school, Motown pop fizzes in until the inevitable fights loom, and then it’s time for edgy funk, all played by the keyboard-heavy orchestra of about 10 musicians. The songs function, and choreographer Sergio Trujillo keeps the cast throbbing, spinning and even flipping with street-wise intensity. But the machinery is familiar.
The tug of two opposing father figures is what gives Palminteri’s writing its durability, and that tension mostly works here. The working-class dad, Lorenzo, is dogged and noble as sung and acted by the steady Richard H. Blake, one of several cast members from the Broadway production. Sonny isn’t entirely toxic, though, even when he’s teaching the young Calogero to roll dice with the foulmouthed, colorfully named roughnecks in a gangland scene out of “Guys and Dolls.” (Joey Calveri, a coolly menacing figure in a slick silver-blue suit, was in for Joe Barbara as Sonny for Tuesday’s performance.)
Co-director Jerry Zaks keeps things lean and forward-moving — the show barely tops two hours, plus intermission — but there’s no escaping how much flabbier the musical is than the surprisingly effective movie, which featured Palminteri as Sonny and De Niro as the dad in a fascinating, fair moral fight. Here, the elbow-in-the-ribs gags and flaring arguments are broad, and the plotting at the climax distractingly throws too many ingredients into an over-boiling pot. If you’re a fan of “A Bronx Tale” and want to see how the story sings, this may not let you down. If you’re a hardcore musical theater buff, it won’t cut much ice.
A Bronx Tale, book by Chazz Palminteri, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater. Directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks. Music supervision and arrangements, Ron Melrose; music direction, Brian P. Kennedy; scenic design, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, William Ivey Long; lights, Howell Binkley; sound design, Gareth Owen. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through March 31 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $54-$104. 800-514-3849. thenationaldc.org.