“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.
“a journey into truth, emotions, reinvention, celebrity and human spirit”
A new musical that stormed the VAULT Festival back in March 2020 about a sporting pioneer who may have embellished the truth has blossomed into a fully-fledged show that more than proves its worth at Charing Cross Theatre.
Writers Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams explore the life of shameless self-publicist Annie Londonderry, who allegedly became the first woman to cycle solo around the world in 1895, in the captivating and lively “RIDE.”
If the original small-scale production was a beautifully crafted cross-stitch which made the most of one of the Vaults caverns, this revamped and expanded version is a well-embroidered tapestry in which every thread is perfectly placed in a brilliantly used larger space.
Born of Latvian Jewish background Annie Cohen Kopchovsky emigrated with her family to America in 1874/5 but refused to be determined by her past. History (or should that really be her story?) suggests that she wanted to write for a New York newspaper but was approached by two businessmen with a wager of $20,000 that no woman could travel around the world by bicycle in 15 months.
Despite the hype and sensationalism, it’s clear that Annie was a great saleswoman and raconteur, changing her surname to get sponsorship from a spring water company and telling increasingly tall stories during her journey which enthralled the crowds.
“RIDE” is a well-crafted musical about a fighter and storyteller with a timeless message of liberation and achievement, never afraid to present Annie’s less than admirable qualities, yet itself unashamedly being creative with a story about someone who had such a casual relationship with the truth.
At its heart is a story of a New Woman eager for change in society. Scrutinising her claims amidst so much showmanship and self-promotion is part of the fun of this indefatigable show, which tells the tale as honestly as it is able given that it is largely selling the reality of a fake American dream.
There are more songs and a longer running time, yet even now the show seems to be pedalling furiously to be something bigger. Still, with Amy Jane Cook’s design the stage is opened up to allow a journey into imagination and the performances are suitably larger than life.
The setting is a newspaper office where an enthusiastic Annie persuades reluctant and sceptical secretary Martha to help recount her deeds. It is a two-hander where both performers triumph, balancing and playing off each other with care and skill.
As Annie, Liv Andrusier has an egocentric Barnum-like presence, though showing off herself and her accomplishments rather than a collection of circus acts, walking a tightrope between truth and fiction as she agitates and elaborates. She roars her way through the lively numbers – the title song remains a fierce showstopper, one of the best new songs in a contemporary musical; she is bold and brazen as she recounts her truth (“Everybody Loves a Lie” is a paean to the art of humbug) yet grasps the vulnerable as she recalls her family and background in the face of loneliness, anti-Semitism, insults and struggles as a feisty woman in a man’s world.
Yuki Sutton’s Martha is a gem, the timid and dubious assistant becoming a mistress of fabrication, not only taking over the story but also elaborating upon it, becoming a commanding presence in her own right.
While the characters begin as opposites, each suspicious of the other, they gradually learn from and believe in each other, with their contrasts keeping each other on track. And Andrusier and Sutton perform soaring duets that set the stage on fire with vivacious harmony and intensity.
Director Sarah Meadows captures the sense of façade without losing sight of the personal stories, however hard the facts may be to grasp. There is colour, light and shadow in a production that never once glows dull.
The small band excites the moment they play their first note. Led by energetic conductor Sam Young on keys, with Frankie South on guitar and Alex Maxted on percussion, the musicians show understanding of and enthusiasm for every cracking musical number, all of which are memorable and of the highest quality.
Originally produced by Bottle Cap Theatre it is no surprise that the show was snapped up by Deus Ex Machina Productions, who surely recognised the show’s beating heart of liberation from trauma and expectations, courage in adversity and the embrace of change and progression.
Smith and Williams write with depth and quality and it’s hard to believe that the near-perfect smaller show has been developed into something even better. They must be contenders for one of the best writing partnerships out there and with “RIDE” they have created a work of fresh energy, and unbelievable fun.
Magically profound and stunningly creative this might just be one of the best musicals this year, a journey into truth, emotions, reinvention, celebrity and human spirit.