Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Bronx Tale Review

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Chazz Palminteri is a busy actor, having appeared in a number of films over the years, including The Usual Suspects, Noel and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Long before success as a screen actor, Palminteri grew up on the streets of the Bronx in the 1960’s. His memories of growing-up and coming of age animate his one man show A Bronx Tale running now through March 29th at the Marcus Center.

Settling-in for the show, it occurred to me that, in spite of having seen a great number of shows at the Marcus Center’s Uihlein Hall over the years, I’d never actually seen a monologue performed there before. This being a traveling Broadway production, the sound was amplified, which you really don’t need for Uihlein Hall. I’ve heard the MSO’s exiting music director Andreas Delfs address the hall on more than one occasion entirely without amplification and even slight intonations could be distinguished. Someone from out of town unfamiliar with the space on an extended would probably need the mic, though. An artificially amplified monologue in a space the size of Uihlein Hall is a bit strange for an avid theatergoer to get used to, but it seems perfectly natural once you get used to it.

Once things get going, Palminteri’s natural charisma washes over the Marcus Center. A good performer can tell any kind of story and keep an audience’s attention for a solid hour/hour and a half even if the story itself is dull, but that’s not a problem here. Palminteri’s stories are exceedingly interesting, both for those interested in something provocative and those that want to casually relax and watch a coming-of-age drama.

He tells the story of a kid growing-up in a bad area of the Bronx who witnessed a mob hit at a very young age. When questioned by the police, he kept his mouth shut and didn’t identify the murderer . . . a neighborhood hero who evidently ranked pretty high in the local mob. The mobster takes a liking to him and before long he has two father figures—a honest, hard-working man at home and a seedy guy teaching him street smarts and getting him hooked-up with the local network whenever he leaves home. 

The really striking thing about Palminteri’s stories is that they’re impressively complex for light, commercial fare. Simple black and white/good and evil is conspicuously absent from Palminteri’s 1960’s Bronx. His main character—the kid he used to be--deeply respected his father AND the mobster, even though they were on opposite sides of society. His father wasn’t all good and the mobster wasn’t all bad.

The criminal may have had him involved in shady things, but his father wouldn’t approve of him dating a black girl at school.  Interracial dating was okay with the mobster, who had more of an open perspective on most things. So there’s no real clear idea of what’s wrong and right here . . . and Palminteri speaks with respect for a man he knows was not a good man . . . and with the way he delivers his stories, Palminteri makes the complexity of respecting someone who does despicable things make a lot of sense. We’re living in a modern world recovering from the many difficulties of seeing things in black and white.

It may come across as pop theatre, but Plaminteri is bringing the issues of moral ambiguity into clear view of large groups of people in a thoroughly entertaining package that takes up less than two hours’ time. It’s one hell of an accomplishment for someone who could’ve ended up in a much more violent profession . . this is probabl going to be the most provocative thing to come to Milwaukee from Broadway for quite some time.

 

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