Michael Corleone needed three movies to learn what Calogero discover in one musical.

Calogero is A BRONX TALE’s hero who could turn out to be an anti-hero if he isn’t careful. The atypical handle is the actual name of Chazz Palminteri, who did a 1989 one-man show on his harrowing coming of age in New York City’s least desirable borough.

The solo effort did so well that Palminteri wrote a full-bodied screenplay that no less than Robert De Niro directed into a 1993 hit film. Now Palminteri is going for the triple crown by turning A BRONX TALE into a musical. De Niro is still with the property, although he’s co-directing with four-time Tony-winning director Jerry Zaks (just in case). Providing the score is illustrious composer Alan (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) Menken and top-notch lyricist Glenn (SCHOOL OF ROCK) Slater.

Now at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, A BRONX TALE is musical from the outset, when a group of Italian-Americans sing a capella doo-wop under a lamppost as Calogero (Jason Gotay) introduces us to the residents of Belmont Avenue. At this point, A BRONX TALE seems as if it’s going to be a light-hearted show, but it turns dark mighty quickly.

Calogero recalls in 1960 when he was Young Calogero (Joshua Colley) and he clearly witnessed Sonny (Nick Cordero) — “The Number One Man in the Neighborhood” – blatantly killing someone. The prepubescent lad has already learned that in this neighborhood “the lowest thing anyone could be is a rat.” So, when questioned by the police, he won’t finger Sonny, spurring his father Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) to say a powerful line: “You did a great thing for a bad man.”

Sonny doesn’t seem bad to Young Calogero, for the thug soon treats him as a surrogate son — whether Lorenzo likes it or not. Palminteri, to his credit and our relief, doesn’t give us the hot-headed stereotyped Italian-American father who screams and defaults to hitting every time he’s angered. Lorenzo is a loving dad, and a warm father-and-son relationship is beautifully established.

Will it last? Young Calogero has difficulty believing Sonny’s contention that “The working man is a sucker” when he sees his exhausted father driving a bus for 40 long hours each week. Lorenzo’s rebuttals seem weak in comparison: “Don’t be impressed by what he’s wearing” and “Let’s see him get up and go to work in the morning.”

But a sharply dressed adult who doesn’t have to set an alarm clock and endure a menial job does seem more glamorous. Lorenzo doesn’t help his cause when he delivers the line that is impossible for any young kid to believe: “You’ll understand when you get older.”

As thuggish as Sonny is, Palminteri wisely makes him three-dimensional. He encourages Young Calogero to attend school, but his actions speak louder and the kid feels he’ll learn enough from “The University of Belmont Avenue.” Sonny also has an unexpected contempt for sports (which, incidentally, is mighty convincing) – but considering how much Calogero wants to please Sonny, costume designer William Ivey Long shouldn’t have him later wearing a Yankee shirt.

At last Sunday’s opening, young Joshua Colley started off strong in his first real opportunity to sing, but halfway through he really let go and roared — and that’s when the first-nighters couldn’t wait for the song to end to show their admiration; they had to applaud then and there. Then, when Colley brought the number to a close, the theatergoers showed they had more hand clapping to dispense and let a larger torrent flow. Excellent child actors are extraordinarily hard to find, but DeNiro and Zaks have discovered one.

In fact, when the action moves seven years forward and Young Calogero must give way to Adult Calogero, we mourn that we won’t see Colley again until the curtain call. That’s especially true because Jason Gotay is merely does-the-job adequate in the role. A too malleable open face and a decided lack of charisma hinder him from making a vivid enough impression.

Just when it seems that Father vs. Son vs. Gangster will be the entire story, Palminteri brings in a potential romance. There will be conflict here too, for the object of Calogero’s affection is African-American Jane (Coco Jones). Although Belmont Avenue is a mere eight streets away from Webster Avenue, they’re worlds apart, for the former is the epicenter of the Italian-American neighborhood while the latter is the black ghetto.

This discord is shown to be stupid by a sharply clever second-act opening. Once again, a bunch of guys stand under a lamppost and harmonize doo-wop — but now they’re black. The point is made: these two groups that don’t like each other have more in common than they think.

But Jane knows the realities, and is more level-headed than Calogero, who wishfully thinks that a romance with a non-white is easily achievable. Of course the day of reckoning comes when he must divulge his girlfriend’s identity to his parents. When Lorenzo balks, Calogero rebuts with “There’s good and bad in every kind — that’s what you said.”

Well, if he did, we never heard it; Palminteri needs to find a moment in Act One where Lorenzo does indeed say it so the man can later be hoisted on his own petard. And just when you wonder why Calogero’s mother Rosina has faded into the background – which traditionally isn’t the case with Italian-American mothers — Lucia Giannetta gets a reprise of a song that she delivers soundly.

Rosina’s advice notwithstanding, there’s trouble ahead. The opening night audience didn’t audibly react when Jane’s brother Tyrone (Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd) used two Italian-American slurs, but when Calogero responded by getting out the first syllable of The N-Word, the crowd gasped in horror and was glad that the lad had interrupted himself. However, The N-Word did pick up its other five letters as time went on – twice.

Fathers, mothers and everyone else, forgive them, for they DO know what they do in being gritty and realistic. Almost 60 years have passed since a Jet in WEST SIDE STORY said of the Sharks “Where the devil are they?” making him sound more like Henry Higgins than a ‘50s juvenile delinquent. Here, A BRONX TALE tells the terribly ugly truth by using language you would have heard on the streets at the time.

The plot too is much darker than the ones Menken and Slater encountered with Ursula and King Triton in THE LITTLE MERMAID, or even Delores and Curtis in SISTER ACT. They’ve provided a solid score in every way. As Menken proved with the recent Montreal production of THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ, he’s a more exciting composer when he’s writing for adults.

The standout is Sonny’s “One of the Great Ones” which suggests a Sinatra song with a Nelson Riddle arrangement down to a wailing saxophone. Nick Cordero has a “nice ‘n’ easy does it” way with both the song and the role. Perhaps he was destined to be the star of A BRONX TALE given that he made a smashing Broadway debut in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY in the role that Chazz Palminteri originated in the 1994 Woody Allen film.

Problems? The plot depends on a car being readily available, and Jane says she has one. That a young black girl who works in a record store has the resources to purchase an automobile seems unlikely, so Palminteri should look for a better excuse to get his lovers into a car.

One word very much needs to be changed: the “if” in “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” The sentence must read “I’m sorry THAT I hurt you.” “If” suggests that a transgression might not have occurred, but here someone has indeed been hurt and the person who’s done the hurting very much knows it.

If that sounds petty, how about this? Set designer Beowulf Boritt should rethink the albums on display at the record store where Jane works. If this is an establishment where a black girl would be hired in 1960, would albums by Mario Lanza and Wayne Newton be on prominent display?

The important part is that A BRONX TALE steamrolls to its conclusion. Deep in the second act, Calogero defiantly decides “If I’m gonna get blamed for something, I’m gonna do it.” That’s the type of “logical” assumption you reach when you attend a non-university of hard knocks. Revenge? Calogero must see for himself if two wrongs can make a right or merely another wrong.

And yet, one of the strongest assets of A BRONX TALE is its pointing out that the bad people in our lives may even be necessary to our achieving integrity and becoming good people. In the end, A BRONX TALE gets a grade substantially higher than any achieved in school by Sonny.