Molto Bene: A Bronx Tale and Il Trittico
Wadsworth Theatre and LA Opera
My Italian roots were showing when I was delighted to see two seemingly divergent productions back to back. Both brought talent to productions from outside their apparent comfort zone. In the case of Il Trittico, it was film directors William Friedkin and Woody Allen directing Puccini opera. In the case of A Bronx Tale it was Academy Award nominated Chazz Palminteri retelling his 1993 screenplay in a one man stage play. Both productions were ambitious and ultimately successful.
A Bronx Tale. Chazz Palminteri’s Cinderella story of how he brought this autobiographical story to life is well told. As a bouncer at a club, Palminteri refused entry to the biggest agent in the biz, Swifty Lazar. Quickly fired (it was Lazar’s birthday party), Palminteri wrote his coming of age story and pitched it around town. The offers started to climb, and he rejected each one (even a million dollar offer against his several hundred dollar bank account), as he wanted assurances to write the screenplay and perform in the film.
Robert DeNiro became enthused, the pair shook hands and Palminteri got what he wanted. The film was sublime. DeNiro (in his directorial debut) played the father and Palminteri the gangster, each playing key roles in the 1960’s evolution from boyhood of the lead character Calogero “C” Anello.
Palminteri revisited the story in 1989 as a one man play off Broadway and LA, and the wonderful show is in limited engagement at the fine Wadsworth Theatre.
Palminteri plays 18 characters on a simple stage. With only three props (other than a brief and well-timed use of old school police car cherry top lights), he portrays his growth from a nine year old who witnesses a gangland murder to a older and somewhat wiser teenager.
The action moves among the street corner of Belmont Ave and Sonny’s saloon, with the boy’s brownstone stoop appropriately between the two. Doo wop music often sets the mood, with Dion (and occasionally his Belmonts) figuring most prominently. C’s father is a straight arrow bus driver, earning a living shuttling people up and down 187th Street. Sonny is a well-respected wise guy who rises up through the neighborhood to become capo di tutti capi. C is understandably impressed with Sonny, but only through various well-told incidents does C understand his father’s wisdom about the difference between being loved and being feared.
Palminteri moves through the myriad characters with aplomb. Racial tensions, young love, familial bonds and other deep issues are presented with humor and razor-sharp insight. The insanely talented Jerry Zaks directed the show.
Il Trittico. When Puccini began to compose a triptych of operas during World War I, many thought the maestro was off his rocker. (Many in the industry thought Palminteri was insane when the unknown palooka rejected six and seven digit offers for his debut play). Unlike Palminteri, Puccini had myriad successes under his belt (La Bohème, Madama Butterfly and Tosca). First performed at the Met in 1918, Il Trittico came to have film-like qualities. Although the first chapter is inexplicably set on the Seine, the latter two pieces are set in Puccini’s beloved Tuscany.
“Suor Angelica” unfolds in a convent. Initially reminiscent of The Sound of Music, the cloistered sisters have no contact with the outside world until a visitor comes with news for the titular character. William Friedkin, who directed macho thrillers like The French Connection, brings a surprisingly delicate touch to the all-female cast. The music is far less secular than Puccini’s other work. Sondra Radvanovsky’s portrayal of the shamed Angelica is strong. In a storyline that I’d enjoy discussing with Gov. Sarah Palin, Angelica has been sent to the convent for having a child out of wedlock. Forced by her aunt to sign away her prodigious inheritance, Angelica turns to the Virgin Mary for succor and guidance. The marvelous set is framed by a spectacular sky, which changes color from daybreak to nightfall rather too quickly. Theologically, this piece is on the other end of the spectrum from the film that brought Friedkin his greatest success (The Exorcist). He exudes obvious reverence for Puccini’s canonical message of redemption.
Woody Allen announces his third of Il Trittico in comedic fashion. “Gianni Schicchi” opens with spoof film credits (‘Un Melone et Proscuitto Producion’) and quickly rolls into a rollicking comedic farce. The screen credits fade, and the curtain rises on a black and white Florentine apartment. The magnificent il Dumo is seen in the background, and laundry is drying from lines swooping across the stage. The set and all the costumes are in shades of black and white, a wonderful effect. Set in an indeterminate time period (circa 1930-1950), the story is about a rich uncle who has died, leaving his family members to rectify the will. It seems Uncle Buoso has left his vast wealth to the friars, perhaps Puccini’s nod to the nuns in his prior piece? The family members bemoan their fate, and hope for the aid of the title character, perhaps a distant uncle to the gangster in Palminteri’s tale?
Despite Allen’s self-effacing comments in the press, he clearly relished working in a new realm. There are more than several witty stage movements which play with the untouched libretto. (Allen and Ian McKellen can both speak about moving a classical work into a different era; see the latter’s monumental reworking of Richard III as a fascist English military leader).
The title role is played magnificently played by Sir Thomas Allen, often seen in Covent Garden.