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A Bravo Tale

December 13, 2007 By:
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Jerry Zaks
Chazz Palminteri gives Damon Runyan a run for his money in "A Bronx Tale," a wonderful one-man show of a million mugs so tough it took a stagehands' strike to stop Broadway shows in terms they could understand -- in this case, the stagehands had only to give them the finger.

Okay, it was all 10 of them, holding placards as they did at other shows. Yo, nothing personal. But, of course, the flip side -- that's the image Palminteri palms off on the public through a spate of spanking-hard criminal parts that have dotted an acclaimed acting career where it takes a tough bird to make a tender chicken ... blow up.

But, here, alone on stage, with myriad memories and countless cons visible vicariously through the performer's perspective, with tattered-dream draperies pushed back to reveal his Bronx childhood, Palminteri, 55, has audiences in the palm of his ever-so-agile hands.

He's had his finger on their pulse for years; the actor/writer first staged "A Bronx Tale" some 18 years ago in California, and then off-Broadway before it was turned into a 1993 film directed by Robert de Niro.

You talkin' to me? Yeah, the film talked to a lot of people -- about love and loyalties, decency and deceit, and crime and punishment that does in Dostoyevsky's die-hard notion of brotherhood. Perhaps it's carrying on its best dialogue these days at the Walter Kerr Theatre, where a Jewish director with catholic creative credits has made the guys and dolls on stage familiar family whether they're serving up seven fishes, or tzimmes and figs for the upcoming holidays.

Jerry Zaks zigs when others zag, knowing when a hand slap is as dramatic as the slap of thunder emanating from a gun barrel. His take on "A Bronx Tale," giving it a Broadway bombshell of a bounce, is so right on that it has you wondering what trouble Calogero Palminteri (the actor's boyhood name ) got into when he didn't have audiences' eyes protecting him every night during the strike.

The gang that couldn't shoot straight is on target here, with Zaks' zeal for accuracy and acumen abetting Palminteri's panache of a play of vino and vengeance and, ultimately, victory.

Zaks is, after all, not just one of the "Guys" -- although he did take them all on in one of the toniest revivals of "Guys and Dolls" 15 years ago, directing a 7-11 toss to die for in the winning Broadway revival of the classic that rocked the Broadway boat for years.

And here he's mixing it up again, with hoods from the hood whose main character lives on East 187th Street at No. 667, just a digit away from the devil who attempts to seduce him with diabolical plans for fast cash and easy ethics.

"Sure," laughs Zaks of Palminteri's chai (18) cast of characters, "he's a one-man 'Guys and Dolls' with a lot more blood and grits."

The Real Thing
Not that Zaks gave "Guys and Dolls" a New York minute's thought when it came to this "Bronx" dust-up of real danger and dagger-eyes. "That was such a fable; this, Charles' story, is based on real people."

Here, a person could develop a cold case; one man's murder is another's memory loss. Good kids are those who are good and quiet when witnessing a crime; it's the Wild West with a Bronx 10-gallon hit man riding shotgun.

This is not Jerry Zaks' neighborhood. On stage, yes, but in Paterson, N.J., where the stage for life was set 61 years ago, far from it.

The child of Holocaust survivors, his street corners intersected at interred memories; a Buchenwald tale never had a happy ending.

"My mom spent a year in Auschwitz. My father -- he was tough. He changed his identity, posing as a gentile. And he fooled" the Nazis.

Who's fooling whom ... good versus evil is a wearisome war game with or without boundaries. Maybe Zaks was bound for greatness because he was always bounding over the obstacles of fear that filled his family upbringing in which the unfamiliar was shadowed in shame and self-doubt.

No doubt, this "Bronx Tale" he took by the tail is familiar turf after all. "For me, it's a classic family drama," says Zaks, "with its influence of parents and especially the father figure."

Go figure that this essence of estimable educational credits -- the Stuttgart-born Zaks is a Dartmouth College grad with an MFA from Smith College and post-grad grades in the grit and drama of a profession that's honored him often -- likes to get down and dirty with the working-class acts on stage. Works for him: "I appreciate a good story and -- oy! -- is this a good story!"

Pasta, prachas -- mangia the matzah: "This is Italian-American as opposed to a Jewish American story," he allows. "I don't believe there is a big difference between the two."

What he does differ with -- and does not defer to -- are the comparisons of "Bronx Tale" with the Badda-Bing times. "The Sopranos," he emphasizes, was the tenor of the times on TV, but there is no value comparing what's parked on stage at the Kerr with what passed at Big Pussy's Parking Lot.

Waste Not!
But the biggest crime on stage -- and in life -- is not abiding by the golden rule reiterated by Palminteri's father. "Wasting talent" is a cell unto itself, contends Zaks, a self-sentence of censure.

"That's sheer brilliance," not a bromide, Zaks says of the blurred world that advice helps clear up for the onstage young man.

And it is a world of wisdom for the ill-advised, no matter race, no matter religion: "A young Jewish couple with young children could be well-advised by that piece of advice."

Zaks certainly was. "Because of their Holocaust background, my parents -- God bless them -- were determined that I would do well."

There were those who could well have done him in as Sonny -- the gung-ho gangster figure in "Bronx Tale" -- attempted with little Calogero.

Recalls Zaks: "There was a guy who hung out near my father's store; he was cool, handsome and well-dressed. He was of interest."

But the prime interest little Jerry was after rated more than any fling with flotsam.

"It was more important," he says with a smile in his voice, "that I become a Bar Mitzvah and be a person," a mensch rather than a mess.

Besides, he says, ever try to stand up to a standout father who finagled his way past Nazis? "My parents scared me of failure."

It's been a magna-cum-applauded life since. His Broadway debut in "Grease" greased the boards for future roles before he went beyond acting into directing 26 years ago with "Beyond Therapy."

Therapy? The doctor (honorary doctorate of fine arts, Dartmouth, 1999) will see you now. And what Zaks saw was that he had a predilection for couching his credits in other directing roles, serving as resident director of Lincoln Center for five years, beginning in 1986. There have been so many awards and honors -- including the George Abbott Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theater -- that this tap-dance kid (he directed that musical's national tour, too) has evolved into a samba sorcerer of a director for such Broadway abracadabra as "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial," "La Cage Aux Folles," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" and "Six Degrees of Separation."

Zaks has separated himself from the pack easily and often, heralded as one of theater's leading lights. Sharing the spotlight comes smoothly to the man who once directed TV's "Everybody Loves Raymond," but who shares the love with others.

"A great collaborator," is how he defines Palminteri, whose "brilliant writing" and top-notch skilled acting is Broadway at its best.

And smart, too. After all, how else to explain Palminteri picking Zaks to help tell "A Bronx Tale" to Broadway?

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