Some performers make an entire career out of one signature performance. Carol Channing did it with Dolly Levi. Yul Brynner did it as the King in The King and I. Now, it appears Chazz Palminteri is destined to repeat the same formula with A Bronx Tale. During its original incarnation at Playhouse 91 during the late 1980s, Palminteri introduced his own early-life mini-memoir about life on the mean streets of the Bronx during the 1960s. Robert De Niro saw the show and optioned it for his directorial debut, filling out the cast of characters played entirely by Palminteri with such actors as himself and Palminteri, among others. Now, a decade and a half after the film landed to mild acclaim, Palminteri reclaims his story in one-man fashion again, this time on the Broadway stage at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Though purportedly based on his own life, one cannot help but wonder if the colorful Tale has benefited from some fictional flourishes. Nonetheless, the final product is an engrossing account familiar to anyone in love with gangster flicks that run red with blood and tomato sauce. As a nine-year-old, Cologio witnesses a local mobster named Sonny gun down a man over a parking dispute. When he pleads dumb to the reporting police officers, Sonny not only takes note – he takes Cologio (Palminteri’s given name) under his wing, much to his kindhearted father, Lorenzo’s, chagrin.
Cologio enters Sonny’s world, encountering such characters as Frankie Coffee Cake, JoJo the Whale, and Eddie Mush, who is “such a loser that he would go to the racetrack, and the teller would give him his tickets already ripped up.” Palminteri displays impressive chops in distinguishing between all characters, adroitly moving from one henchman to another, playing old and young and old again by the way he moves, the way he talks, even the way he stands. He keeps the energy moving as well, especially in the play’s first two thirds, as he describes Cologio’s idolatry of Sonny and the growing estrangement between him and Lorenzo. Eventually, though, Tale loses its grip on the audience when Lorenzo and Sonny take a backseat to Jane, a black woman that Cologio takes to, complicating his life in the neighborhood.
Broadway ace Jerry Zaks directs with typical aplomb; he knows when to keep Palminteri moving and when having him stand still communicates the most power. Additionally, James Noone’s simple street corner, evoking 187th Street and Belmont Avenue, helps bring the audience forty years back in time. However, despite all the professionals involved – Palminteri included -- Tale still feels like little more than an acting exercise. It is well-honed enough that it could serve as an actor’s thesis, but it is definitely a show that could have benefited from a full cast. Tale has plenty going for it – heart, talent, a rich sense of identity – but what it needs is more bodies on the stage.