NEW YORK - Chazz Palminteri, a remarkable storyteller, grabs you by the brain and takes you with him. When he's excited, you're excited, and when he lies, so do you. When his dad slaps him, the sting is yours as well.
And when he's stymied by a central question in A Bronx Tale - are you better off feared or loved? - his youngster's befuddlement is fully yours. Even if you were never there before, you are in the Bronx again, torn between the decent, hardworking father who does everything to raise you right and the tough, charismatic mob don who does everything to raise you smart.
Palminteri first performed his sort-of-autobiographical one-man play in 1989 in Los Angeles, then Off-Broadway. Lots of people wanted to make a movie of it, but not with Palminteri in it, and he turn down a million-dollar offer, with only about $200 in his checking account.
Robert DeNiro saw the show, liked it, and liked Palminteri. A Bronx Tale became DeNiro's film-directing debut in 1993, no longer a one-man show. Among the cast, DeNiro played the dad, Palminteri the mob boss. Palminteri went on to a busy film career (Bullets Over Broadway, The Usual Suspects, Analyze This, and dozens more) but another go at A Bronx Tale as a one-man stage play was always somewhere in his mind. The show opened Thursday.
His tale oflatest take on growing up around East 187th Street and Belmont Avenue (immortalized in doo-wop culture by Dion and the Belmonts) also marks Palminteri's growth in a new way: It's his Broadway debut, and he is stunning in the 18 roles he plays, including himself, in a 90-minute monologue that sometimes makes your heart race.
Palminteri grew up quickly. He was nine in 1960 when, sitting on his Bronx stoop, he saw the local mob tough who held forth at the bar next door murder a man in a parking altercation. Questioned later by police, the boy decided not to become a neighborhood pariah - he failed todidn't identify the shooter. His lie brought him respect and high standing from the Bronx toughs, and intellectual agita from his nagging conscience.
A Bronx Tale takes the boy through his childhood and into his late teens, when his family decides it's time to leave the Bronx. At root, the tale is beautifully early Italian-American; Palminteri constructs a cocoon in which his family raises him on one level, and the community at large raises him on another. His dad teaches him to respect baseball and America, and to beware of the contradictions that make life difficult to understand. The community teaches him to respect the raw, violent power of a baseball bat, to make America work for him, and to embrace life's contradictions.
The show is meticulously lit for maximum dramatic effect by Broadway master Paul Gallo, and under veteran Jerry Zaks' direction, there's not a false move in it. Palminteri, 56, is in total command of the material, and as it becomes more complex, his performance becomes more muscular. Around the halfway mark, it's apparent that this is his show alone; it's hard to imagine anyone else bringing it off with his depth and sense of realism, as he relives his life by turning it into staged fiction. It also becomes obvious that Palminteri's is the sort of performance the Tony Awards were created to honor.
"The saddest thing in life is wasted talent," the boy's father tells him. The elder Mr. Palminteri needn't have worried.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http:// go.philly.com/howardshapiro.