Review by Sam Waite
While it is now home to a long-running hit musical, new work is back in the main space of The Other Palace for a few days as Glory Ride graces the stage that is more commonly home to Westerburg High School to test out this exciting new work in front of an eager audience. While still showing some growing pains and raising questions about the viability of the concept, the willingness to explore history and the passion involved in creating a new musical are to be commended. In that alone, maybe there is something worth exploring here.
Glory Ride, written by father-daughter duo Todd and Victoria Buchholz, opens in Florence with our introduction to Gino Bartali, real-life Italian cyclist turned rebel. Initial events rush by – Gino enters a race on a borrowed bicycle to clear his father's debts, his competitor takes him on as an assistant and eventual teammate, and Gino becomes a national celebrity. The pace of these events, and how little they tell us about any of the characters, made me wonder if this was something that later versions may be better off removing. The story may be improved by opening on an already established Bartali and drip-feeding his backstory as it goes.
A lack of clearly defined motivations plagues much of the script, with subplots about familial grief and a love interest for our leading man not being emotionally investing enough to fully follow. Easier to keep up with is Bartali’s ongoing rivalry with his former teammate, the eventual fascist leader behind closing the borders of Florence with the exception that Gino may come and go by cycle, his being a much-loved public figure. By this point retired after personal tragedies, Gino is tempted back by what his being able to travel freely opens in the build-up to World War II – Bartali is best known today for his bravery in transporting first falsified documents to Jewish children, and later the children themselves on his journeys.
As athletic rival turned political adversary Mario, Neil McDermott is suitably domineering and cold, despite the confused suggestion that his politics are somehow related to feeling abandoned by Gino’s abrupt retirement. As Gino Bartali himself, James Darch does well with the balance of a charming public figure whose cockiness is gearing up close, but his constant presence is where the thin characterisation shows most obviously. Strong but underused are Daisy-Wood David as love interest and activist Adriana, and Marcus Harman in a handful of one-line roles and more prominent in the second act as unwilling black-shirt Felix.
Harman, most recently seen as the alternate title role in Dear Evan Hansen, is given one of the score’s stronger numbers, an affecting ballad about Felix’s time as a violinist prior to being drafted. Elsewhere, the opening number showed some promise, introducing us to a world where historical events are sung, and a comedic piece in act two enticed the odd foot tap as the hilarious Matt Blaker led a team of accountants in mathematical song and dance. Unfortunately, a good chunk of the score was less than memorable and felt the most in-progress element. While both Buchholz’s craft believably human dialogue, the current versions of their lyrics fall too easily into cliches, diluting the inherent importance of their subject matter.
Still, while this current iteration is far from perfect, it was still inspiring to see new work being created and a full house there to support it. Also, it's worth noting that European conflicts surrounding but not centred within the Second World War have been mined for great musical success – The Sound of Music and Cabaret being the most prominent offerings. While Victoria Buchholz herself raised comparisons to Les Mis (perhaps best demonstrated by Ricardo Alfonso’s tender, emotive cardinal and Pippa Winslow’s lamenting, gorgeously sung soprano) I would argue there's a closer resemblance to Chess, with wartime politics intertwined with the “sport” of our protagonist’s choice.
And indeed, under Shaun Kerrison’s clear, decisive direction and PJ McEvoy’s non-intrusive video designs helping to clarify where and when we are in this concert setting, the cycling-as-combat motif works more often than it should. I didn't feel that I knew much about this imagined version of Gino Bartali – Why is he so anti-fascist when many around him disagree? Was he always this cocky? What has he been doing since retiring? – but I always firmly believe that this was, for him, another race to win.
Despite my disappointments with the work as it stands, this singular sureness and the writers’ willingness to explore an inherently difficult subject for musical theatre, makes me want to see what becomes of Glory Ride following this concert presentation. While they may have hit a few speed bumps, I wouldn't mind seeing what this team given another lap.
Photos by Manuel Harlan
Glory Ride has now concluded its short run at The Other Palace. Look out for further developments on this new show by following them at twitter.com/gloryridethemus
It should also be re-stated that this was a workshop. I look forward to seeing where this show goes next.