Author/Actor Chazz Palmintiri first shared his personal story with the public in a highly lauded 1989 one man show. Robert De Niro subsequently made his directorial debut with a film starring Palminteri and himself. With that success came a revival of the solo presentation on Broadway. And now a musical. I have to say, I regret missing the piece in its original form. “It’s my story, the one that shattered the world that I knew” would then have hit home.
“…a warm summer night on Belmont Avenue, you’d hear Italian men romancing their women…Marie, get the fuck in the car!” (She gives him the finger.) Lines like these, which I presume come from the original source, are thoroughly appealing. Nicknames of both street kids and local goons are wonderfully explained. (As the latter are introduced, each faces front and sideways while flashes go off resembling the taking of mug shots.) There are conversations and come-backs that land with winning specifics. The book holds solid.
Bobby Conte Thornton and Hudson Loverro
After a cliché musical opening (done less obviously by In the Heights), a doo-wop group sets the scene. The show might have had great time with this genre, rhythm and blues, and period pop. Instead most numbers emerge an amalgam of pop and generic Broadway. I’m afraid the talented Alan Menken has been too long with Disney to put much pith into the score which sounds homogenized. Glenn Slater’s lyrics fare somewhat better, though I never figured out to what undisclosed “talent” the protagonist was supposed to stay true. (A reoccurring theme.) There are at least five reprises.
Rory Max Kaplan, Keith White, Dominic Nolfi, Joe Barbara, Hudson Loverro, Cary Tedder
Still, much about the musical is entertaining. Its story, which reminds one of a 1950s black and white film, is narrated by grown up Calogero (Bobby Conte Thornton for whom mustering sympathy is nigh impossible) until he steps into his teenage shoes. At nine years-old, the boy (Hudson Loverro with apt braggadocio), instinctively covers for street boss Sonny (Nick Cordero) and becomes his pet. Minutes in a church confessional and “my soul was clean.”
With status, he acquires neighborhood deference, freebees, and entry into the periphery of mob life. Throwing dice for his inadvertent mentor (in a scene out of Guys and Dolls) seems like great fun, especially when he earns an appreciable tip. Errands are run – nothing dangerous. Sonny is genuinely fond of the boy. At no point does he consider taking him into the business. They call me C and “I Like It,” Calogero sings proudly in one of the cool songs. (Ain’t It The Truth?” is another.)
Hudson Loverro and Richard H. Blake; Bobby Conte Thornton and Nick Cordero
Despite being warned off by bus driver father Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) and earnest mom Rosina (Luicia Giannetta), C trails Sonny like a puppy, watching and learning. “The working man’s a sucker, kid, remember that,” the boss says. “They don’t love him, they fear him,” Lorenzo points out when his son observes Sonny’s popularity. Our hero is at the center of a tug of war and might go either way.
Things are brought to a head when C falls for a black girl named Jane (Ariana Debose). Shades of West Side Story. All their friends are against a relationship. The two factions first lurch at the edge of bigoted violence, then literally explode. If it weren’t for Sonny…
The tale has a big heart and aspects to recommend, but it could have been so much better.
Bobby Conte Thornton (center) Nick Cordero (right) and The Company
Nick Cordero’s Sonny is flat out the best thing on the stage. The artist inhabits posture, gesture, accent and attitude making his character whole and human. He sings well losing none of this.
To my mind, Directors Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks both miss opportunity to show character definition and allow the leading man to get away with being bland. Stage flow, pacing, and use of levels are excellent.
Choreography by Sergio Trujillo enlivens proceedings. There’s a splendid, original number employing claps and slaps. Beowulf Boritt’s Set contains terrific, multi-story fire escapes against backgrounds that look like amateur summer stock. William Ivy Long’s Costumes work for the men, but are universally unflattering on the women. Fight Coordination by Robert Westley is as fake as it comes.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Bobby Conte Thornton (center). Bradley Gibson & Ariana DeBose (left), Lucia Giannetto & Richard H. Blake (right)
A Bronx Tale
Book by Chazz Palminteri
Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Based on the book by Chaz Palminteri
Directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks
220 West 48th Street
On the one hand, Waitress is yet another story of a blue collar, abused woman who finds the strength to walk out of a loveless marriage into an independent life. On the other, its setting – a southern Pie Shop/Diner and ancillary characters are so winning, the story almost seems fresh.
This is partially due to one of the most well written Books created for a musical in as long as I can remember. Author Jessie Wilson is smart, sensitive, insightful, and humorous. She reveals more about a character in a few lines than others attempt in paragraphs when not dependent on lyrics. (More about these later.) Brava. It’s also attributable to some splendid performances.
Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, Kimiko Glenn
By all rights this should be Jessie Mueller’s second Tony Award. The artist acts as well as she sings (here with a perfect southern accent), thinks before our eyes, and offers the kind of universal, everywoman appeal we haven’t had in a Broadway leading lady for some time. How long has it been since you were moved during a musical?
For those of you unfamiliar with the film, Jenna (Jessie Mueller), is married to sullen, demeaning, beer guzzling Earl (Nick Codero) who demands every penny she earns. The actor literally makes one wince he’s so convincing. Beaten down/fearful and unable to imagine managing alone, she sticks. (We learn her father was like Earl.)
Jenna doubles as waitress and talented pie baker at a highway Diner/Pie Shop run by cliché/irascible Cal (a pitch perfect Eric Anderson). On the menu are, in part: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee Pie, Devil’s Food Oasis Pie, Ginger Snap Out of It Pie, and Humble Crumble Rhubarb Pie. Throughout the piece, the young woman muses on recipes with titles that are metaphors of what’s going on in her life.
Keala Settle, Kimiko Glenn
Jenna’s only emotional support come from her fellow servers, Sassy, smart-alek, grounded Becky (Keala Settle) and gawky, virginal, Dawn (Kimiko Glenn), whom the ladies are trying to ease into the dating pool. Settle has a fine R & B voice and acts up a storm in her modest role. Glenn’s voice walks the line of screechy, but the actress delivers comedy with flair.
Flinty diner regular, Joe (Dakin Matthews), whose meal stipulations are exacting, also turns out to be unexpectedly perceptive about and sympathetic to Jenna’s difficulties. Unsurprisingly, the veteran actor is charming.
The diner, as conceived by Set Designer Scott Pask is cheerful-Hollywood-musical appealing if you don’t take notice of the piano loaded up with pies and the ostensibly invisible, on-stage band. (Is this necessary?!) Kitchen scenes are called out by wheeled, gridwork, storage shelves making transitions fluid. An ever present backdrop of bleak roadway with telephone poles reminds us where we are.
One night, Earl plies Jenna with liquor and, much to her shock and distress, impregnates her. (Betrayed By My Eggs Pie) Confection in hand, she visits her gynecologist only to discover the woman’s retired. Instead she finds the newly installed, sweet but seemingly bumbling Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling). Jenna tells him she’d prefer not to be congratulated.
Drew Gehling, Jessie Mueller
The two are immediately attracted. Though the doc declares he’s given up sugar, she leaves her pie. Watching him hesitantly sniff, taste, then gorge on it with eyes glazing over is magical. The audience erupts. Her concoctions, he later tells Jenna, are “Biblically good.”
Drew Gehling, with whom I am unfamiliar, is enchanting. The Andrew Garfield lookalike is progressively drawn, besotted, and lustful with such gusto and authenticity, he take us unquestioningly along. Thespian skills include physical comedy, an engaging voice and the ability to shift to believable gravitas.
As Jenna’s belly grows, she and Pomatter give in to a needful, exhilarating affair observed by wry Nurse Norma (Charity Angel Dawson). Stage direction of the couple’s encounters is exuberant, credible and rather hot. Along the way, Earl discovers his wife is pregnant and makes her promise never to love the baby more than him. This, he obtusely assumes, cements their commitment. (White Knuckle Cream Pie.)
Nick Cordero, Jessie Mueller
The only plausible answer to Jenna’s situation appears with the announcement of a pie contest whose prize is $20,000. Hopeful of escape, she starts to sequester money around the house for the entrance fee. At leisure after losing his job “…so it looks like you’ll be payin’ the bills around here,” Earl finds the cash. He’s furious. Now what?!
A secondary storyline involves Dawn’s resistant involvement with Ogie (the masterfully cast Christopher Fitzgerald) whom she initially connects with online. Her suitor is a geeky looking (think Book of Mormon) tax auditor and amateur magician who only eats white foods on Wednesday. Ogie turns up at the diner and doggedly refuses to leave until promised at least a second date. He knows what he wants.
Christopher Fitzgerald, Kimiko Glenn, Aisha Jackson
“Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” is one of the best numbers in the show, not the least because of the fleet-footed, pixilated Mr. Fitzgerald who highjacks our hearts. Not since he played Og (from Og to Ogie), the leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow, has the actor had an opportunity like this to excel. Spot-on timing, priceless expressions, and a spastic jig are but a few examples of virtuosity. The things Ogie and Dawn have in common couldn’t be more quirky and amusing. A later glimpse at Revolutionary interest is inspired.
Waitress may be the best, warmest, least fussy staging ever executed by Director Diane Paulus. While we’re familiar with her all-bets-are-off production numbers – these, in fact, seem more character specific – intimate scenes are executed with restraint and finesse.
Choreographer Lorin Latarro makes his dances organic and fun.
Jessie Mueller, Dakin Matthews
NOW, lets talk about music and lyrics, the least effective part of the show. But for one or two songs, Sara Bareilles’ music is close to tuneless, her lyrics so pedestrian as to pass with little effect, her orchestrations dense. How she managed to feature in this production is a wonder.
Costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlab show real knowledge of locale, economics, and personality. Jonathan Dreans’s Sound Design is poor. Bass and drums too often drown out lyrics. Balance is nonexistent.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Jessie Mueller
Book by Jessie Nelson
Music & Lyrics by Sara Barielles
Based on the film written by Adrienne Shelly
Directed by Diane Paulus
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street