Review by Daz Gale
Saddle up as London prepares to welcome a new musical based on a loved movie (insert “you’re joking, not another one” meme here) as Bronco Billy – The Musical pitches up at the intimate yet intriguingly versatile space of Charing Cross Theatre. With a relatively blank canvas as it makes its UK premiere, would this musical prove to be the fastest shooter in the West… End, or would it end up firing blanks?
Based on the 1980 Clint Eastwood movie, the musical adaptation of Bronco Billy premiered in Los Angeles in 2019 and now crosses the pond for its London and UK debut. It tells the story of Bronco Billy and his performing troupe as they venture from town to town with their traveling show. Their fairly quiet life takes an unexpected turn when Manhattan heiress Antoinette Lily rocks up while on the run, taking cover with the troupe. What follows is a message about finding your true family, all with no shortage of rip-roaring comedy along the way.
Dennis Hackin takes the original story from the movie and cleverly twists it into a new narrative, ramping up the comedy factor significantly. A comic caper that borders on farce territory, and sometimes plunges headfirst into it, the musical of Bronco Billy is unashamedly silly at times, resolving to put a smile on the audience's faces – which it does with ease. The more heartfelt nature of the story with its message of love, acceptance, and family takes a back seat and often suffers at the hands of the over-the-top comic elements. It felt like there was a way to bridge these elements more cohesively to create a more multifaceted show that wasn’t short on laughs but also managed to hammer home its themes more effectively.
The music in the show was instantly pleasant and, at its best moments, memorable. With music and lyrics by Chip Rosenbloom and John Torres and additional lyrics by Michelle Brourman, they further the plot of the story beautifully and effortlessly segue into the book. Each of the leads get their time to shine with Bronco Billy himself Tarinn Callender getting a standout moment with ‘I’m Gonna Be Strong’ and supporting cast members such as Karen Mav getting their own time in the spotlight with deservedly big musical numbers. With a surprising mix of disco, there is plenty on offer for musical theatre fans to love in one of the strongest elements of the show.
Hunter Bird’s direction is complex to say the least, thanks to the use of magic and illusions in the show. At times, incredibly busy to the point of chaos, there is an impressive level of intricacy to the direction which at its best creates jaw-dropping moments. One highlight featured an elaborate freezeframe for the surrounding cast during a musical number which really was beautiful to witness and flawlessly executed. It’s not all as consistent as that, however, with other sequences failing to impact as much as others and some choices that came across as ill-advised. There is no doubting the ambition that has been attempted with this production which is certainly admirable and makes it understandable that not every choice or element landed… at this particular performance and to this particular reviewer, at least.
Amy Jane Cook’s scenic design is a thing of beauty with some big and bold set pieces and no shortage of quick transitions ensuring visually the show is always stimulating and stunning. Anyone who was disappointed by the lack of fire on stage at Charing Cross Theatre’s recent production of Rebecca need not be disappointed here. It may have taken until after the show closed to appear, but it is here at last. While I commented on that show’s underwhelming set design, Bronco Billy is proof of what can be achieved with a small theatre, pushing Charing Cross Theatre’s capabilities to the limits and smashing it.
With so many great elements involved in Bronco Billy – The Musical, why is this a 3-star review and not 4? Truth be told, this is undoubtedly a four-star show. However, the performance I saw was nowhere near that quality, hence the lower rating (though, again, I will die on the hill that 3 stars is a good review). The press night performance suffered at the hands of too many on-stage mishaps (usually involving those rogue props) and clumsy staging at times that needed tightening up. I got the sense that the whole thing felt a bit too under-rehearsed and that this show was not quite ready for a press night performance. Had this performance been in a week or two, I have no doubt this show would have earned an extra star from me. I could see all of the elements for a fantastic show were there, they just needed a bit more time to be refined before they could do it justice.
One element that needs no refining, however, is its stellar cast. Tarinn Callendar shines as the titular Bronco Billy, commanding the stage with a swagger and style that charms at every turn. Fresh from wowing audiences as the alternate Sally Bowles in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, Emily Benjamin gets a role to make her own from the start in an awe-inspiring turn as Antoinette Lily. Displaying her out-of-this-world vocals and immaculate ability to tap into a character and become them completely, she is a joy to watch from start to finish. If anyone was in any doubt of what a huge star Emily is destined to be in the years to come, you need look no further than her performance in Bronco Billy to see why.
Supporting members of the cast all thrilled in their roles with Josh Butler a standout as the sweet-natured and charismatic Lasso Leonard James. Helen K Wint gets some gorgeous moments in the underused role of Lorraine while Silas Wyatt-Barke was brilliantly over-the-top as the villainous John Arlington.
The undoubted standout performance has to go to Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as per usual. With her unrivaled ability to steal a scene with the click of her fingers, she was at her dominating best here. In her recent turn in Bat Boy, I remarked that she appeared to be channeling Patti LuPone on stage. Her performance as the scheming, unscrupulous, and murderous Constance Lily here can only be described as like watching an amped-up Drag performance of Margaret Thatcher… only less evil. Absolutely sensational at every turn, she got the performance of the night with her big act two solo disco number and was clearly having the time of her life on stage with all of her many exaggerated stage movements and inflictions. Victoria is one of the greatest stars in musical theatre and she once again reaffirmed that with this brilliantly batty performance.
There is a lot to love about Bronco Billy – The Musical. A great story, brilliantly staged and with a stellar cast to boot meant this should have been an absolute triumph of a show… and I’m sure it will be in time. However, it would be remiss of me to gloss over its shortcomings due to what I perceived to be not enough rehearsing, and perhaps a couple of the more complex sequences that need a slight rethink to stop them coming across as messy as they did. That’s not to say this show is a complete misfire – I have no faith that sooner than you can shoot a can off a fence, Bronco Billy will be the sharp-shooting hit I know it can be. Even in its currently seemingly unfinished form, there is much to love with some of the clumsiness only adding to its charm. Maybe this isn’t a show that needs analysing to the extent I have and should just be enjoyed for the camp spectacular it is. After all, the madness and escapism this musical offers is exactly what theatre should be.
Bronco Billy - The Musical plays at Charing Cross Theatre until 7th April. Tickets from http://broncobillymusical.com/
Photos by The Other Richard