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STAGE REVIEW

The gang's all here in 'A Bronx Tale'

With his restaging of ''A Bronx Tale,'' Chazz Palminteri returns to where it all started for him. With his restaging of ''A Bronx Tale,'' Chazz Palminteri returns to where it all started for him. (Joan Marcus)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / April 3, 2009
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When Chazz Palminteri wrote "A Bronx Tale," back in the 1980s, he must have known he was understating the case. It's not one, but about a dozen tales of his childhood in the Bronx.

Those tales proved so popular in the show's first stagings, in 1989 in Los Angeles and off-Broadway, that they kicked off Palminteri's film career: Robert De Niro saw the play in New York and chose to direct the film adaptation. Palminteri soared from there, but he clearly retains a soft spot for the one-man memoir that gave him his start. He revived it on Broadway last season, and a national tour plays at the Colonial through April 5.

The Chazz Palminteri who stands onstage here is not the young Turk of 1989, any more than he's the 9-year-old boy at the center of the first part of the action, or the 17-year-old self who takes over later on. But the actor inhabits both these characters and many more: the boy's strict, loving father, Lorenzo; his indulgent, worrying mother, Rosina; an assortment of street pals and gangsters; and, most of all, Sonny, the goombah in chief, who takes young "C" under his wing after the child chooses not to tell the police who pulled the trigger in a fatal fight over a parking space.

Palminteri has said that he really did see such a fight as a child, but he adds that "A Bronx Tale" is a fictional embellishment of that incident. It's hard to know exactly where fact ends and fiction begins, and it doesn't much matter. This is a morality tale, essentially, and its sentiments and lessons are what mean the most to its author.

Sometimes that means that the play shades too far into sentimentality or glib characterization. More often than not, though, Palminteri's big heart and easy way with a yarn carry us past any such bogs. He slips effortlessly from one character to the next, using a few simple vocal changes and shifts of gestures - a distinctive three-fingered point, a hand cradling a chin - to identify each one.

He also resists dividing his characters into good guys and bad. Sonny does bad things, he tells us, but he also lets us see the young boy's idolizing of this powerful man, as well as and the teenager's gratitude to him, tempered with conflicting loyalty toward his law-abiding father. The essential lessons here are simple ones - use your gifts; make wise choices - but the shadings are more complex than you might initially expect. It's like a familiar red sauce with just enough spice to keep it interesting.

And, like a red sauce made by someone's mamma, it feels ultimately beyond criticism. It sags a bit in the later section, when C develops a high-school crush with complications, then veers dangerously close to melodrama before resolving in almost tearful summation, but it feels like caviling to point such things out.

Palminteri remains an engaging and heartfelt performer, and his audiences clearly love him. Only a fool would mess with that. And fools don't last long in the Bronx.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

A BRONX TALE By Chazz Palminteri

Directed by: Jerry Zaks. Set, James Noone. Lights, Paul Gallo. Music and sound, John Gromada. Wardrobe, Isaia.

At: Colonial Theatre, through April 5. Tickets, $35-81, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayacross america.com