“Brown’s book and lyrics is crammed full to the brim with questions, hence the title presumably. Although curiosity is startlingly absent”
There’s a weekly feature in The Guardian’s Saturday magazine titled ‘Across the Divide’, in which two mismatched people are thrown together on a date to see if they can enjoy each other’s company. Their differences may be political, philosophical or cultural. It is sometimes entertaining, sometimes downright dull; but a pleasant diversion to accompany a cup of coffee. Imagine stretching out the general concept into a two-hour musical and you might come up with something resembling “Killing the Cat’, Warner Brown and Joshua Schmidt’s new musical, premiering at the Riverside Studios.
Maggie (Madalena Alberto) is a world-weary, successful scientific author wanting to escape fame for a while, so decides to let her care-free sister-in-law Sheila (Kluane Saunders) whisk her off to the Italian countryside. Meanwhile, hippy-dippy Heather (Molly Lynch), who talks to dead poets in her head, inexplicably decides to drag along near-total-stranger Connor (Joaquin Pedro Valdes) to the same destination. Heather is chasing culture while Connor is seeking certainty, but in a very uncertain manner. In Italy, Maggie swoons over cabbage-vending Luke (Tim Rogers) who sounds like he’s from Sydney but hankers after Hackney. Luke is a born-again spiritualist living with his sister Paula (Kluane Saunders again) who dresses for ‘Oklahoma’ but has the artful cheeky chatter from ‘Oliver’.
Brown’s book and lyrics is crammed full to the brim with questions, hence the title presumably. Although curiosity is startlingly absent. Instead, we are delivered banality and cliché. Songs about molecular science, although with sub-molecular depth, compete with love ballads and debates that turn into arguments – at times resembling those countless conversations in student digs after closing time.
There is no denying the talent and vocal power of the performers. Even if their characters are not in harmony, as an ensemble the cast are perfectly in tune. Whilst each has their own moment to shine (such as Lynch’s delicate ‘All the Dead Poets’ or Alberto’s touching ‘I Think I Want to Go Home’), collectively they discover much needed dynamism in what is essentially a cycle of synonymous songs. The ‘big’ questions in life have been thrown into a thesaurus, the overly long index of which informs the script. The characters suffer from the subsequent shallowness. There is heightened emotion in the delivery, but nothing touches the heart. But then again, too much time is spent discussing whether the heart is just a blob of muscle and chemicals or whether it is the gateway to the soul.
Jenny Eastop’s staging makes good use of Lee Newby’s evocative, white-washed set: a mix of M. C. Escher and Tuscan villa, bathed in Mediterranean warmth by Jamie Platt’s lighting. Schmidt’s score is enlivened by the onstage trio of percussion, keys and cello. There are, indeed, moments of beauty to be found. The musicianship is faultless, particularly cellist Georgia Morse whose presence and musicality is a highlight throughout.
There are leitmotifs and false endings, and plenty of existential angst in the second act. And although the immovable opinions of the characters seem to melt ever so slightly under the weight of the sugary conclusion, there is still little to care about. The two pairs of lovers are not even certain whether they disagree or merely agree to disagree. The questions remain. But the curiosity? Whilst it may rub the fur the wrong way, it is not going to trouble the cat – let alone kill it.
“The mix of humour and humanity in the story is a brave choice. The comedy is occasionally misplaced, but the morality never misses a beat”
With Remembrance Sunday still very much on people’s minds, it seems fitting to attend a new musical based on one of the unsung heroes of WWII. Gino Bartali was a renowned Italian cyclist who quietly saved hundreds of lives, working to help Jews who were being persecuted by the Nazis during the time of the Italian Social Republic. His fame gave him exception from curfews and regional lockdowns, which he used to carry documents and messages to the Italian Resistance. He later led Jewish refugees to safety in a secret wagon, telling patrols that pulling the wagon attached to his bicycle was all part of his training. Very few people are aware of his contribution and Bartali died with his secret in 2000. “The good is done” he used to say, “Certain medals hang on the soul, not on the jacket”.
It is a remarkable story that deserves to be told, and until now it has only been revealed in piecemeal, or as a cameo in wider reaching documentaries. A 2007 Hollywood film, ‘Lion Man of Tuscany’, was shelved and is as yet unproduced. The question is, though, is it a story that needs to be told in music? With “Cabaret” and “From Here to Eternity” down the road and an imminent West End transfer of “Operation mincemeat” there is the danger of a resistance (dreadful pun intended) to another musical tackling similar themes. The writers Victoria and Todd Buchholz weaken our scepticism, however, with a succinct, clear narrative reinforced by a score that showcases the message without sacrificing the emotional integrity of the characters and the libretto. Although weakened, the question still remains.
“Glory Ride” is a work in progress, billed as a staged concert. In the main house of The Other Palace, it has the feel of a select rehearsed reading, albeit one with a generous guest list. Read and sung on the book, one has to approach it with a different frame of mind, and consequently it is inappropriate to tag any review with a star rating at this stage. With scripts and iPads in hand, the performers are kind of let off the hook, except to say that there is a very fine ensemble of voices on offer.
James Darch as Bartali has the most gear changes as he journeys from wide eyed, adolescent optimist to reluctant hero. Bartali emerges with integrity intact unlike childhood friend turned Italian Fascist soldier (Neil McDermott) Mario Carita. At the peak of his success Bartali withdraws from professional cycling when his younger brother is killed in a riding accident. He could never quite find the anonymity he craved. So, with the rise of fascism, he used his fame to his advantage: for a long time, the Fascist police and the German troops risked causing public discontent if they arrested him. While Major Mario Carita was compiling a list of eight hundred Jewish children to be deported (or worse), Gino Bartali joins forces with Cardinal Dalla Costa (an impressive Ricardo Afonso) and Jewish accountant Giorgio Nico (Matt Blaker, in fine form dishing out comic relief) to save them. Bartali is always one step ahead of Carita in this cat and mouse race.
The mix of humour and humanity in the story is a brave choice. The comedy is occasionally misplaced, but the morality never misses a beat. It is a timely retelling of the journey, but like the hero of the piece who scaled the Alps and the Pyrenees, the creators of the musical might be in for a similar uphill ride. The approach is overcrowded. This is a trial run, and the writing duo can afford to give themselves a slap on the back for now. Without getting complacent. Although not instantly memorable, the musical numbers – very much guided by the script – are wonderfully crafted and varied, with plenty of rousing ensemble moments. The protagonists are all given their solo moment in which to shine. Against the backdrop of a thrilling story, they should be on a winning streak. But to convince that this needs to be a musical is a hurdle that is becoming increasingly difficult to cross. The reception received from the crowd at The Other Palace should at least steer them in the right direction.