The first requirement for any musical theater performer, according to Joe Barbara, is that he or she be a good actor.
"I'm an actor first, with a pretty good singing voice," said Barbara, who is playing Sonny in the national touring production of "A Bronx Tale," coming to Proctors for eight performances Tuesday through Sunday. "Musical theater is a very unique and special art form, and you're telling the story through music. No matter how good a voice you have, the audience has to believe the story. No matter how great a voice you have, ultimately, it's about the story, so I think every one in musical theater should be great actors."
"A Bronx Tale" is based on Chazz Palminteri's 1989 one-man show about growing up in the Bronx, a project he and Robert DeNiro turned into a Hollywood movie in 1993. Palminteri performed it again as a one-man show on Broadway in 2007-2008, and then he and DeNiro, with help from Alan Mencken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics), turned it into a Broadway musical which opened in December of 2016 and is still running.
Barbara is fresh from the Broadway production where he played a couple of different characters and also served as an understudy for Sonny.
"I got to do over 40 performances on Broadway as Sonny," said Barbara. " over 40 times on Broadway. "It was a great experience and working with those guys was amazing. Chazz is a friend, a mentor, a guy you can go to for advice. He's a very generous man, and very generous with his friendship.
"Bob was just wonderful to work with," Barbara said of DeNiro, who also directed the Broadway musical. "It's great to be able to say I worked with both of them. We have their blessing to do this show, and that means an awful lot to me. It means we must be doing it right."
The message of "A Bronx Tale" is clear to Barbara.
"The saddest thing in life is wasted talent," he said. "That's the very blatant message of the show. The choices you make in life will change your life forever. One wrong move can change the whole course of your life and for dozens of others, too. Chazz is telling us to make good decisions. Don't get into a car with somebody who's drunk. Sometimes you have to be reminded of the obvious. That needs to be said, and saying it with the music of Alan Mencken is a great way to do it."
Barbara grew up in central Florida just south of Daytona Beach, and headed to Syracuse University to study film and television production.
"My parents were from Queens, I had an aunt and cousins who still lived in New York, so I kind of always had this fascination with New York," said Barbara. "That's one of the reasons why I went to upstate New York for college, and Syracuse had a great program. Right after I got out, I went to New York City and was hired by Entertainment Tonight. I was the guy who was driving the van, changed the batteries and carried the lights. I carried all the heavy stuff."
Barbara called it a "fantastic gig," and a wonderful learning experience, but it wasn't quite what he wanted to do with himself.
"It really frustrated me in some ways because we were always shooting on a movie set, behind the scenes of a television show or covering a Broadway opening," he said. "I was really close to the entertainment industry but not quite the way I wanted to be. But it gave me a broad exposure to that whole world. It seemed like I met everybody, from Jimmy Stewart to Ringo Starr to Whitney Houston."
Barbara, who still enjoys the production angle, got back on the performing track when he landed a regular job on a tv soap opera, "Another World," from 1995-1999. He then got a bigger break when he was hired as a replacement Danny Zuko in the Broadway production of "Grease."
"Right after I left 'ET' I auditioned for a regional production of 'Grease' and I got down to the last two guys but it didn't work out for me," said Barbara. "Then I was doing a production of 'Tony and Tina's Wedding,' and heard they were doing another production of 'Grease' on Broadway. I thought maybe I could do Teen Angel. I didn't get that, and it's a long story, but eventually, after leaving no stone unturned, I gotta phone call from my agent telling me that they wanted me to come in and audition for Danny Zuko, so I finally got a shot to do Danny on Broadway. That was fun. I loved that whole 'Happy Days' era, so I was into it."
Barbara, who lives in New Jersey just outside of New York City with his wife and their three children, says he's comfortable doing all kinds of performing whether it be live on stage or in front of a camera.
"I've been doing a lot more theater than television the last 10 years, but I love them both," he said. "It's always nice to do a little of both. My preference would be to keep going back and forth."
Joining Barbara on stage in "A Bronx Tale" are Richard H. Blake as Lorenzo, Joey Barreiro as Calogero, Michelle Aravena as Rosina and Brianna Marie Bell as Jane. Frankie Leoni and Shane Pry will alternate in the role of the younger Calogero. In the entire cast there are 10 actors who were in the show on Broadway.
'A Bronx Tale'
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: Tuesday through Sunday, Oct. 28; performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m., Oct. 28
HOW MUCH: $105-$20
MORE INFO: Visit www.proctors.org, (518) 346-6204