Eighteen characters, but only one actor. That's a lot of work for one guy, no matter how you slice it.
But Chazz Palminteri isn't complaining, not in the least. After all, he's got no one to blame but himself.
"A Bronx Tale" is all Palminteri's doing, a one-act, one-man autobiographical play about a young boy growing up in the Bronx and the two father figures who vie for his affections. One is his father, who wants nothing but the best for his son — and that includes a life sheltered as much as possible from the mean streets in which he's forced to grow up. The other's a mob boss who takes a liking to him, this kid who knows when to keep his mouth shut.
On stage, Palminteri plays the kid, Calogio. Palminteri plays the dad, Lorenzo. Palminteri plays the mobster, Sonny. He plays all sorts of other parts: friends, family, acquaintances, mobsters. It's quite the performance, he admits.
"It's serious fun, but it's a workout, too," says the 61-year-old actor, who will be bringing "A Bronx Tale" to the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric for a single performance Saturday. "I actually get a good workout. It's like 80 minutes on nonstop aerobics, you know."
It's also had a pretty good run in the 25 years since Palminteri first performed it. It played in Los Angeles and off-Broadway, has toured the country (including a 2008 stop in Baltimore, at the Hippodrome) and, in 2007, debuted on Broadway in an 18-week run (extended for two weeks due to ticket demand). New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood praised its "heart, spice and humor." When it played Las Vegas last year, a reviewer for broadwayworld.com referred to "A Bronx Tale" as "pure theater of the best quality."
"It was a hit on Broadway; it was a hit everywhere," Palminteri says. "It sold out all over the country. Nowadays, I do about 20-25 dates a year, and I chose Baltimore to be one of them."
Why Baltimore? Well, there's Chazz, the Italian restaurant (of course it's Italian — you think a guy named Palminteri is gonna attach his name to French food?) he opened two years ago in Harbor East. Plus, he adds, dropping a piece of wiseguy lingo, "it's a nice place."
The play, first performed in 1989 and made into a movie four years later — Palminteri only played Sonny in the film; Robert De Niro, who also directed, played Lorenzo — has an almost universal appeal, its author says. And even after a career that's spanned nearly 30 years and includes an Oscar nomination (for Woody Allen's 1994 "Bullets Over Broadway") and memorable roles in "The Usual Suspects," "Analyze This" and "Poolhall Junkies," it remains his defining role.
"Absolutely," he says, sounding way more proud than exasperated. "I've done 58 movies, and all they talk about is 'Bronx Tale.' And it's not just here. It's a huge hit in Europe. Japan loves it. It's amazing. It's a big hit right now in Paris. Someone is doing it in Paris right now. I licensed it in French, and it's a huge hit."
(A musical version is even in the works, he acknowledges, but declines to reveal any details. "It's a few years away," Palminteri says. "They don't really want to make any announcement until it really happens.")
Performing all those roles, he insists, never grows old. In part, that's because he's not above tinkering with the play a little, adapting it a bit for a particular night's audience, maybe milking a few extra laughs from a line the audience really likes.
But it's the quality of the material, he says, that keeps bringing him back. "A Bronx Tale" is a finely tuned piece of work that deserves its reputation, he says, practically daring anyone not to enjoy it.
"I'm so excited to do it for a whole new audience, because I know how much they're going to enjoy it," Palminteri says. "Alfred Hitchcock used to say, 'There's only two things you can do to an audience. You can make them laugh, you can make them cry, and you can scare them.' OK, that's three things. And if you can do two of them, you're doing great.
"But 'A Bronx Tale,'" he says with assuredness, "has all three."
If you go
Chazz Palminteri will bring "A Bronx Tale" to the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., at 8 p.m. Nov. 16. Tickets are $47-$147. Information: 410-900-1150 or lyricoperahouse.com