Q&A: ‘A Bronx Tale’ musical marries ‘Jersey Boys’ and ‘West Side Story’

In 1989, Chazz Palminteri staged the autobiographical one-man play “A Bronx Tale,” which caught the eye of Robert DeNiro, who directed and starred in the movie version in 1993.

In 2016, it became a Broadway musical, which now hits the road for a U.S. national tour that swings through National Theatre in D.C. for a short run this Tuesday through Sunday only.

“DeNiro really loved the script and asked Chazz if he could make a movie out of it; obviously you can’t say no to DeNiro,” actor Joey Barreiro tells WTOP. “The musical is now the third iteration. It’s really exciting to be around such iconic guys like Chazz, DeNiro and Jerry Zaks, our director. … DeNiro was involved with the Broadway production a lot more. He was very involved with the staging of fight scenes [and] Chazz was in the room looming over all of us.”

The story follows blue-collar son Calogero Anello, who is tempted by the world of organized crime growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s. Can the lessons of his humble bus-driver father and a budding romance pull him out of a life of crime and keep him on the up and up?

“The plot is based off Chazz Palminteri’s actual life,” Barreiro said. “When he was a kid, his actual name was Calogero. … Calogero witnessed a murder when he was a kid, and the man who committed the murder took Calogero under his wing. … The story is about Calogero following in the footsteps of Sonny and his father witnessing this and not being totally OK with it. Then as Calogero gets older, he falls in love with an African-American gir, and has to deal with that during the ’60s when that wasn’t exactly PC. It’s a really touching family story.”

Barreiro is one of 11 alumni from the Broadway show: Joe Barbara as Sonny, Richard H. Blake as Lorenzo, Michelle Aravena as Rosina, Brianna-Marie Bell as Jane, Antonio Beverly as Tyrone, Frankie Leoni as Young Calogero and Shane Pry as Alternate Young Calogero.

“Right now, Joe Barbara is here with me and just pulled up a video of Robert DeNiro beating him up in a fight scene,” Barreiro joked. “Joe plays Sonny — and he is [tongue-in-cheek] OK. Then there is Richard Blake, who plays my father. He was the original guy who played Lorenzo on Broadway. His voice is amazing. Then, Brianna-Marie Bell. We have a great, great cast. Michelle Aravena plays my mom and she’s fantastic. I could just extol everyone’s virtues.”

The show features music by two-time Oscar winner Alan Menken, who teamed with the late Howard Ashman on Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” (1989), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), “Aladdin” (1992) and “Pocahontas” (1995). In “A Bronx Tale,” he collaborates with Glenn Slater, who earned three Tony nominations for the Broadway musical versions of “The Little Mermaid,” “Sister Act” and “School of Rock.” Together, they create a doo-wop songbook.

“Mr. Menken knows how to write a show,” Barreiro said. “There’s a great duet that Brianna [and] I sing together called ‘In a World Like This,’ a really nice, smooth, ’60s love ballad. … Then there’s a song called ‘The Great Ones,’ one of the most iconic songs from this show that Sonny sings. It’s very much in a Dean Martin kind of crooner style. All the doo-wop stuff is fantastic.”

The throwback tunes are set to the choreography of Sergio Trujillo (“Memphis,” “Jersey Boys”).

“Sergio Trujillo is a big name on Broadway — he’s choreographed numerous hit shows,” Barreiro said. “There’s a great number in Act 2 where the kids from Webster Avenue, the African-American kids, do this street-style choreography. It’s awesome to watch. I don’t do very much of the dancing, but I love watching my friends. … There’s cool little tricks and flips.”

It all unfolds against the visual backdrop of the Bronx in the 1960s.

“The set design is amazing,” Barreiro said. “When you walk in the room, everything is just red all over the place. Red and black. Beowulf Boritt did the set and it’s really cool to play on. It’s just like the Broadway set. We had to make a few tweaks to tour it, but it’s the same show.”

In the end, the hope is that the show will appeal to folks of all tastes.

“It’s ‘Jersey Boys’ meets ‘West Side Story,'” Barreiro said. “We’re bringing together audiences that aren’t usually aligned with each other. This is a big Broadway musical, but it really appeals to a male-dominant audience, the guys who loved watching the movie and that father-son dynamic. So, if you’re not the kind of guy who would usually come to a Broadway musical with singing and dancing, this show is probably going to be your way into that world.”

Find more details on the theater website. Hear our full conversation with Joey Barreiro below:

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