Doo-wop singers, mob guys and a very good edition of the Yankees — life could not be more colorful or clear-cut for young Calogero Palminteri, who learned life’s major lessons during the 1960s on a porch stoop at 187th and Belmont Avenue next to bars and bookie joints. Coming up on its 20th anniversary, “A Bronx Tale” covers Palminteri’s adolescence — and his accumulation of street smarts under the tutelage of a wise guy named Sonny — in a wonderfully told and smartly crafted story that continually builds energy and never loses its cohesion.
Los Angeles is the second stop for the semi-autobiographical one- man show, which is scheduled to visit 13 cities by May. Written and staged in 1989 and filmed by Robert De Niro in his directorial debut, the piece has the resilience of an old-time mob guy, finding its heart in order, drama, humor, pride, family and honor, all the elements necessary for a good mob tale, along with the comical nicknames for the wiseguys.
“A Bronx Tale” connects with the universal desire to be wanted and appreciated. Palminteri’s story, for all the years it entails, is compact and personal. It chronicles a place where a lifestyle that was handed down from generation to generation found itself hanging by a thread as society was going through upheaval; it’s 1968 when this “Tale” concludes and the issue of race is handled through the eyes of a confused teen and not in the broad strokes of revolution.
Story starts with Calogero — nicknamed C — as a 9-year-old whose favorite things in life are Mickey Mantle, his mother’s sauce and watching his bus-driver father work. A shooting in front of his house and his interaction with the police and locals bring a world of change to his life as the local capo (Sonny) takes in C as his own, determined to protect and educate the kid.
The evolution of C, up through the age of 17, is a steady and measured loss of innocence, from witnessing brutal behavior to the tarnishing of idols and people he admires to the unveiling of life’s secrets. Palminteri conveys the changes through anecdotes rather than spelling out the lessons learned; the development of C is viscerally realized through movements both subtle and exaggerated, a development of confidence in his voice and the way he is addressed by Sonny’s soldiers.
The characters feel familiar yet not clichéd and Palminteri, so thoroughly entrenched in the material, hits the notes with pinpoint clarity as he bounces between ne’er do-wells, thugs, girls and the two central characters.
Jerry Zaks’ direction lets Palminteri modulate while building a head of steam that reaches its conclusion in a crowded barroom. Jon Gromada’s sound work, mostly effects but there’s music, too, that enhances key moments; Paul Gallo’s lighting brings out the specifics in James Noone’s open yet detailed set of an apartment building, a stoop and a restaurant.
It’s testament to the way “Bronx Tale” is crafted that it stands just as tall in a post-“Sopranos” universe as it did before anyone ever saw mob guys get touchy-feely. It’s nostalgia that wears well.