This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Rags-to-Riches stories are few and far between in the history of Los Angeles Theater. Survival is usually the most that an L.A. Theater artist can hope for—but there are exceptions. The tale of Chazz Palminteri is one of those rare exceptions and it's worth retelling.
In March of 1989, the 37-year old Palminteri opened his one-man show, A Bronx Tale, at the 75-seat West Coast Ensemble. The 400-word capsule review in the LA Times called it "a raucous, solo tour-de-force." It earned more good reviews and three months later, the show moved to the larger 200-seat Theater West. By the end of the year, A Bronx Tale had moved Off Broadway; and by the next year Palminteri sold the rights to Universal Pictures for $1.5 million. Robert DeNiro directed the film version and then in 1995, Palminteri played the gangster/script-doctor in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, which earned him an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Almost 20 years later, Palminteri is finally back on a Los Angeles stage—doing the same show that gave him his break. A Bronx Tale appeared on Broadway last year and now the actor is taking it on a nationwide tour. Instead of a small, Hollywood theater—the type where the actor work-shopped his piece, working out the kinks in the material between midnight and 4am when no one was around—Palminteri is holding court at the 1,400-seat Wadsworth Theatre. It's a large venue, but it doesn't dwarf Palminteri's performance.
What makes A Bronx Tale special is the fact that it doesn't feel like a one-man show. It rarely even feels like a "performance." Only when some recorded music starts playing to help with a transition or mood change, can you feel the hand of Jerry Zaks, the Broadway veteran who directed this small show for a larger house. For the most part, the sets and stagecraft simply fade away and Palminteri's storytelling is in the spotlight. That's how it should be in good one-man shows and that's how it is here in most of A Bronx Tale.
Palminteri's story is not eloquent or daring—his structure is straightforward and simple. It tells the tale of a young kid in the Bronx torn between his father, an honest city bus driver trying to bring his son up right, and the local mafia kingpin, Sonny, who takes a shine to the boy and treats him like the son he never had.
When Palminteri recounts ordinary life in the Bronx during the 1960's, it feels pretty boilerplate: oddball ethnic characters, domestic squabbles, etc. But when he starts to take us inside the neighborhood's mafia bar, the portrait becomes rich and unforgettable. Palminteri's reminiscence of his first crap game—and the colorful cast of characters assembled there, Rudy Ice, Eddie Mush, Frankie Coffee Cake, and JoJo the Whale—is like the oral equivalent of Scorsese's famous tracking shot from the film Goodfellas.
Palminteri's words, descriptions, voices and gestures give the audience a front row seat at this crap game, where we can hear the sound of the money being counted and feel the rush of air following the dice flying towards the back wall of the table.
What keeps this from being precious or trite is the way Palminteri keeps the story clean. No self consciously artful descriptions, no clever narrative devices. He simply tells this Bronx tale as if the audience was seated next to him at a bar. When he breaks into the voices of Sonny, his father, or anyone else, it feels justified, in the same way that someone at work might do an imitation of the boss.
This is theater in its simplest form: the vivid retelling of a story that it feels as if we were there when it happened.
Chazz Palminteri's A Bronx Tale runs though Sunday at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Photos: Joan Marcus