LORENZO? SONNY? Palminteri plays both, and he owns the material, even if some of it is melodramatic.
For those still jonesing for The Sopranos, Chazz Palminteri's A Bronx Tale (at the Colonial Theatre; closed) may provide a somewhat sanitized fix. The Oscar-nominated character actor first performed his folksy if bullet-ridden memoir of a 1960s childhood in the New York borough of the title in a tiny theater in Los Angeles in 1989. It moved from there to Off Broadway, where Robert De Niro caught it and bought it for the 1993 film, in which he made his directorial debut while sharing the screen with Palminteri.
Legend has it that Palminteri, with just a couple hundred bucks to his name, turned down a cool million for the film rights until De Niro came along and agreed to cast the author/performer — who plays some 18 roles in the one-man show — as elegant neighborhood crime boss Sonny, who took the young Calogero Palminteri under his wing when the youngster elected not to rat him out for a murder. Revisiting the play, which was revived on Broadway in 2007 and is now on national tour, you can understand why Palminteri held out to play Sonny. He claims in interviews that the hero of A Bronx Tale is his upstanding bus-driver dad, Lorenzo (played by De Niro in the film). But it's Sonny who sprays gunfire from under a quaint street lamp where he lurks like a non-terpsichorean Gene Kelly, dispenses advice from arch-capo "Nick" Machiavelli, and rides herd over a colorful crew of hoods with names like Eddie Mush and JoJo the Whale. Lorenzo, on the other hand, is boring. So, too, coming on the coattails of Martin Scorsese and in the wake of The Sopranos, is some of A Bronx Tale, a 90-minute memory-lane tour that ambles down a familiar pavement of life lessons and mob clichés before bursting into melodrama and sniffles in the final half-hour.
This is not to say that Palminteri does not own the material — and we're not just talking copyright. Playing himself at ages nine and 17 as well as Sonny, Lorenzo, the wise guys in the bar, the teen guys on the corner, even a singing restaurateur dubbed Rudy Ice, the actor dabs at his Dickensian canvas with surprising delicacy for a large man going for larger-than-life effects. His tapering hands — gesturing with thumb, pinkie, and forefinger for Sonny, balletically tracing the trajectory of a gob of spit, shaking up imaginary dice or car keys, or standing in like fist Muppets for a roomful of preening goombahs — do particularly refined work, leaving the broader stuff for the performer's brooding, mobile face and cranked-up propeller arms.
But neither comic chops nor wry authority can make up for the predictability, sentimentality, and basic imbalance of the material. A Bronx Tale wants to laud Lorenzo, with his credo that the working man is a hero and that the worst thing in life is wasted talent, but it limns a quirkier, more complex character in Sonny, whose solicitude — which extends to leaving roughed-up enemies on the cold pavement to help alleviate their swelling — flies in the face of his tough-guy mantra that "nobody cares."
Introduced at a formative age to a neighborhood heaped with mob morality, red sauce, and racial tension, Palminteri obviously did care. In A Bronx Tale he created a valentine to his two dads that's lopsided and a little dusty but nonetheless sweet in its trite truisms. And you sure can't complain about the delivery.