Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****
I knew Chazz Palminteri was a terrific actor and as A Bronx Tale proves, he's no slouch as a playwright either.
In his solo show about growing up in New York City in the 1960s, which I saw last weekend at the Providence Performing Arts Center, Palminteri portrays 18 characters. He brings to life in vivid detail an assortment of mobsters, his bus driver father and two versions of himself - an impressionable 9 year old and a streetwise 17 year old.
The set design by James Noone is very simple - a street sign on a tall pole announcing the location, 187th Street and Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, the concrete stoop outside Palminteri's apartment building and a neon sign lighting up the local bar, Chez Joey.
As the story opens, young Calogero (Palminteri's given name) witnesses an act of violence that leads the neighborhood mob boss, Sonny, to take him under his wing. He gives him the nickname "C" and an assortment of odd jobs.
This new relationship doesn't sit well with C's father, Lorenzo, an honest, hard-working man who doesn't want Sonny to have anything to do with the boy.
One of the most touching scenes in the show is when Lorenzo tries to explain to his son that there's a difference between being loved because you're a good person and being loved because you're feared.
But the young Palminteri is clearly in awe of Sonny and enthralled with the colorful bunch of wiseguys who surround him, men with names like "Frankie Coffee Cake" "Eddie Mush" and "Jojo the Whale."
Palminteri does a masterful job portraying all of these characters and their various idiosyncrasies with a change in his tone of voice, an expression, the way he moves on stage. He makes them all distinct and memorable and he's a wonderful storyteller.
There's a lot of humor in A Bronx Tale, including a very funny segment where Sonny tries to teach the teenage "C" a thing or two about women. But Palminteri doesn't romanticize the mob. And when C falls for a black girl, he doesn't gloss over the neighborhood's racism either.
Palminteri has been doing this show for a long time. It premiered in Los Angeles in 1990, then moved off-Broadway. In 1993, it was made into a movie with Robert DeNiro. In 2007, Palminteri did it on Broadway and for the past year he's been on a national tour.
But despite having performed it for 20 years, Palminteri isn't simply going through the motions. He makes A Bronx Tale captivating. And even though the events belong to his childhood, the now 57-year-old makes them seem as fresh as if they had happened just yesterday.