One of the risks courted by musicals that heavily rely on derivative elements is that audiences will start thinking about the superior works they are derived from.
Alas, that is the case with the eager-to-please and sometimes-likable but fundamentally mediocre “A Bronx Tale,’’ which has arrived at the newly (and clunkily) renamed Citizens Bank Opera House.
Its codirectors are Robert De Niro, who I believe has made a movie or two and is currently known for impersonations of Robert Mueller on “Saturday Night Live,’’ and Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks, who helmed the fabulous recent revival of “Hello, Dolly!’’
The De Niro-Zaks collaboration does result in some snappy staging, but neither that nor the generally solid performances are enough to make “A Bronx Tale’’ more than an average enterprise. The score is by the estimable Alan Menken, the lyrics are by Glenn Slater, and the choreography is by Sergio Trujillo, all three of whom have done better work. Chazz Palminteri, who has told this semi-autobiographical story in multiple guises (solo play, movie) before this musical adaptation, wrote the book.
In an attempt to broaden its scope, “A Bronx Tale’’ loads more weight on that tale than it can support, attempting to wring “West Side Story’’-style drama from an interracial love story and youth-gang rivalry that take over the spotlight about midway through.
That story line never quite takes off, and it pulls “A Bronx Tale’’ away from a more compelling relationship: the one between the show’s teenage protagonist, Calogero (engagingly played by Joey Barreiro), and a pair of radically different adult role models who are vying to school him in the ways of the world.
One is his father, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake), a bus driver and an upright citizen who has spent his life following the rules, even when it has resulted in a thwarted professional dream and considerable financial sacrifice for him and his wife, Rosina (Kyli Rae, substituting Wednesday night for Michelle Aravena). The other is a charismatic gangster named Sonny (Joe Barbara, a commanding presence), who lives by an entirely different code and is seen, Calogero tells us, as “a god’’ in their Bronx neighborhood (a milieu that, as depicted here, is part “Goodfellas,’’ part “Guys and Dolls,’’ complete with a rowdy dice game). “The working man’s a sucker,’’ Sonny tells Calogero, and advises him that inducing fear, not love, is the key to success.
Their alliance is forged in 1960 after 9-year-old Calogero (played by Frankie Leoni) watches from his front stoop in the Bronx as Sonny comes to the rescue of a beating victim by shooting the assailant dead. Calogero stays mum about the murder, refusing to give Sonny up to the police, and the mobster takes the boy under his wing. That’s the beginning of a tug-of-war between the values of Sonny and Lorenzo that is still going strong by the time “A Bronx Tale’’ jumps to 1968.
Unfortunately, “A Bronx Tale’’ doesn’t delve deeply enough into this story of competing filial loyalties to fully unearth its psychological complexities, choosing instead to baldly telegraph the issues at play. “He’s not your son!’’ Lorenzo snaps at Sonny at one point; at another, Lorenzo tells Calogero that he, Lorenzo, is the true tough guy because he gets up and goes to work each and every morning. These are things best left for an audience to figure out on their own.
Similarly underdeveloped is Calogero’s budding romance with Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell), an African-American girl from another neighborhood, which could be an illuminating window into his determination to craft a new identity for himself, apart from the constricting prejudices of his neighborhood. Laudable though its anti-racism message is, though, that message is delivered in superficial, by-the-numbers fashion. (Also, we are asked to believe that Jane would return to Calogero’s side even after he starts to use a racial epithet during a showdown with her brother before just stopping himself.)
The challenge for Calogero is to envision a world beyond his stoop. The challenge “A Bronx Tale’’ doesn’t really meet is to make us care about that eventual journey.
A BRONX TALE
Book by Chazz Palminteri. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston, through April 14. Tickets from $44.50, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com