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
Grab your daughter and run to see Freaky Friday, now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Don’t live nearby? Don’t worry. Freaky Friday was developed by Disney Theatrical to be licensed through its partner, Musical Theatre International, first to professional and then to amateur theaters. So the production may be coming to a venue near you. When it does, don’t miss it.
Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton (Photo by Jim Saah)
Disney, constantly mining its film vault for material that can be recast for the stage, made a wise call with this one. Freaky Friday is the kind of feel good show with a message that never grows old. As a writer for NBC’s Parenthood, Bridget Carpenter knows something about family relationships. For the musical’s book, she took the basic story – a mom and daughter inadvertently switching bodies for a day – while updating the themes to resonate with a young, tech savvy audience. Besides an enjoyable two hours in the theater, the musical should spark followup conversations with young people about social pressure, cliques, body image, and privacy.
Disney decided to premiere the production at Signature and brought together a talented creative team to make it happen. They included, from Broadway: director, Christopher Ashley (Memphis); musical score, Tom Kitt, and lyrics, Brian Yorke (the duo behind the Tony Award-winning Next to Normal); choreography, Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, On Your Feet); set design, Beowulf Boritt (Tony Award, Act One); Emily Rebholz, costume design (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike); and lighting design, Howell Brinkley (Hamilton, Tony Award).
Heidi Blickenstaff with the Cast (Photo by Jim Saah)
Heidi Blickenstaff, who delighted Broadway audiences with her performance in Something Rotten, plays the mom, Katherine, a widow and type-A personality who is driven to control everything and everyone around her. Besides running a successful catering business, she’s taken on the job of planning her wedding to Mike (Alan H. Green). But she still has time to micromanage her children, ten year-old Fletcher (Jake Heston Miller), and teenage Ellie (Emma Hunton).
Katherine fails to see that her upcoming marriage is having an impact on her children, who still miss their father. While the younger Fletcher retreats into a fantasy world with his puppets – a hippo and a starfish – Ellie lashes out at her mother. A tussle over a vintage hourglass with magical powers zaps Katherine into her daughter’s body, while Ellie morphs into her mother’s. Ellie is quickly overwhelmed, struggling to cope with being a mother and soon to be wife, while her employees look to her for guidance. Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself in high school, struggling in gym class, dissecting a frog in biology, and dealing with mean girls.
Blickenstaff perfectly captures the mannerisms, facial expressions, and speech patterns of a teenager. She twists strands of hair, wrings her hands, and bats her eyes. Faced with Adam (Jason Gotay), the boy Ellie has a crush on, she positively melts. The poor young man, has no idea why his classmate’s mother is acting so strangely.
Sherri L. Edelen, Emma Hutton, Jason SweetTooth Williams, Heidi Blickenstaff (Photo by Margot Schulman)
Conversely, Hunton becomes more restrained, an adult in a teenage body. When mother and daughter wind up in the high school counselor’s office, what unfolds is clever and hilarious. Two officials (played by Jason SweetTooth Williams and Sherri L. Edelen) critique Ellie’s school performance. Katherine (really Ellie), dismisses their concerns, her casual body language speaking volumes. Meanwhile, Ellie (really Katherine), takes their concerns seriously, perched on the edge of the sofa, ready to take action. Both actresses play the scene for all it’s worth.
Jason Gotay with the Teen Ensemble (Photo by Jim Saah)
The teen ensemble is terrific. Kudos to Trujillo’s choreography, particularly the gym scene where the students use inflated bouncy balls to great effect. Storm Lever, as Ellie’s nemesis, Savannah, perfectly captures the manipulative attitude that defines so many mean girls.
Heidi Blickenstaff and Jake Heston Miller (Photo by Margot Schulman)
Jake Heston Miller, who has to be one of the busiest child actors around, having last appeared as Oliver at Arena Stage, is just plain adorable as Fletcher. And the scenes between him and Katherine (who is really Ellie) are sweet moments, sibling bonding under unusual circumstances. Katherine first bursts his bubble in Act One with the hurtful, “Parents Lie,” then redeems herself in Act Two with the sweet “After All of This and Everything.”
There’s a brilliant and brave moment in the musical which will speak to so many young girls who obsess over their bodies. Ellie and her two besties – Katie Ladner as Gretchen and Shayna Blass as Hannah – strip down to own their appearance. Bravo!
With the day coming to a close, Katherine and Ellie manage to switch back, just in time for Katherine to be wed to the long-suffering, yet very perceptive, Mike. He knows better than Katherine that winning over his stepchildren will take some time. But thanks to the day’s events, mother and daughter have reached a greater understanding. There’s no better way to empathize with someone else than by taking time to actually walk in their shoes. That’s a message for the ages and for all ages.
For information on licensing Freaky Friday, contact MTI by phone, 212-541-4684, or email, firstname.lastname@example.org
Top photo credit: Margot Schulman
Through November 20, 2016
4200 Campbell Avenue