Citizen Staff Writer
You can have many friends in life, but you only get one Dad. But if you’re a guy, you also get three great women.
These are lessons we learn in Chazz Palminteri’s intense, expressive telling of “A Bronx Tale,” now playing downtown through the weekend.
This is personal storytelling at its most compelling; open-collar portrayals of the need for grace in the blue-collar lives of Italian-Americans determined to stand tall in shop-worn neighborhoods where criminals with lots of money have the most status.
Drawing on his own experiences growing up at the corner of 187th Street and Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, Palminteri wrote this 90-minute play for 18 characters. Then he spent a year in private rehearsals, learning how to perform all the roles himself, with no costume changes, no props and only one set – a towering apartment house stoop, the boxed-in window of the bar next door called Chez Joey and, of course, that street lamp where the murder occurred that set the course of 9-year-old Calogero’s life forever.
Covering the span from 1960 to 1968, the exact time when society went into a cultural free-fall after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, there is little of the psychedelic questioning that splashed across the 6 o’clock news every evening. Instead of new values, there were the traditional – family values that would be revered by fathers with day jobs and godfathers with guns.
The very idealism that was disappearing from life in the better suburban neighborhoods and city parks around the country was being validated in this one vital street corner in the Bronx. Sometimes with violence, sometimes with harsh words spoken by brave men who depended on the truth to be their strongest weapon. This is the appeal of Palminteri’s story.
“I don’t know why it works,” Palminteri says of his performance. “I just know it works. I see it happen night after night.”
Opening night in the Tucson Music Hall, it happened again. The curtain comes up, with a doo-wop song playing and Palminteri standing with his back to the audience, snapping his fingers in time to the music.
Then he turns around and starts telling animated stories about the crazy nicknames of all the wise guys who hung out at the bar next door to his apartment building at 667 E. 187th St.
There was Frankie Coffeecake with a pockmarked face; Jo Jo the Whale, a short guy weighing almost 400 pounds; and the most-unfortunate Eddie the Moosh, a hard-luck guy everybody knew as the world’s worst gambler.
There was Calogero, who – at age 9 – idolized all these low-budget wise guys. Then we get to the magnificent Sonny, a true Lord of the Streets whose sense of fashion and body language was given to slender shoes and gestures with the kind of flare that would humble the most powerful symphony conductor.
Sonny’s podium was under the street lamp, where he watched over his domain, keeping the criminals in line and keeping the working stiffs with families out of the line of fire.
Young Calogero’s favorite spot was the stoop, just opposite the street lamp, where he spent all the time when he wasn’t in school. So one morning, right before wide-eyed Calogero’s innocent face, two men attack each other and Sonny steps up to kill one of them in cold blood.
The kid is the only witness, and refuses to identify Sonny to the cops. The boy’s father, Lorenzo, doesn’t like policemen either, but tells Calogero, “You did a good thing for a bad man.”
Sonny, meanwhile, becomes Calogero’s guardian on the crime scene – more to keep an eye on the kid than anything else. But friendship and respect grows between them. At the same time, Lorenzo is determined to keep his young son from being seduced into the life of a wise guy.
Then Palminteri jumps ahead to Calogero at age 17, filled with sexual desire and in love with an African-American girl. Sonny thinks the mixed-race relationship is OK, but Lorenzo’s dead set against it. When Calogero’s heart confuses his mind, violence erupts.
As this arc of experience evolves, Palminteri quickens the pace. His voice and his gestures often combine to create the cinematic feel of quick edits. Voice changes are accelerated by sharp hand claps. A quick nod, a jerk of the shoulders, Sonny’s stylized gestures go spinning into emotional chaos.
The technical aspects of his performance, alone, would be remarkable. But really what Palminteri wants to celebrate is not the urban illusions of stree-corner criminals but the proud sacrifice of these working-class men for whom their own families are kingdom enough.
IF YOU GO
What: Broadway in Tucson presents “A Bronx Tale” starring Chazz Palminteri
When: 730 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Tucson Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave.
Price: $25-$65, with discounts
Info: 321-1000, broadwayintucson.com