With the mountainous legs of the Tour de France just around the corner, a new musical, Glory Ride, telling the story of an Italian Tour de France winner is having its premiere at Charing Cross Theatre, following concert performances at The Other Palace last year.
It’s an unbelievable and inspiring true story, based on the life of Italy’s favourite son, Gino Bartali. A family tragedy in early life almost ended Bartali’s cycling career before it had even begun. But a natural ability soon attracted attention and a celebrity status.
With Florence, and the rest of the country, in the grip of fascism under Mussolini, Bartali found himself with additional freedoms that were not available to other citizens. And so, with the help of a Cardinal (Niall Sheehy) and his accountant Giorgio Nico (Daniel Robinson), Bartali began smuggling forged documents to the Swiss border to help refugee children escape.
Eventually, worried that he wasn’t doing enough, Bartali hitched a trailer to his bike and began smuggling the children themselves. By the end, it’s an incredibly moving story, especially in the final moments when the true extent of Bartali’s achievements are revealed.
Directed by Kelly Devine, Glory Ride certainly looks the part. Authentic costumes and a nifty set help recreate the feeling of being in an Italian piazza. Projections help set the scene, including archive footage which remind us this is all true. The Italian accents do occasionally break the spell as they are achieved with varying degrees of success.
Victoria Buchholz’s score is actually very beautiful, and if you don’t listen too closely to some of the odd lyrics you’ll leave feeling rather warm-hearted; several of the songs such as ‘Look Ahead’ and ‘Glory’ are catchy enough to keep audiences humming on the way home.
Even after extensive workshopping the book remains problematic, particularly in the pacing. It races through the first fifteen minutes, quickly mopping up the key moments in Bartali’s life, but without giving the audience the opportunity to meaningfully connect with any of the characters. Then the remainder of the first act feels quite slow and with too little actually happening.
We also lose quite a bit of time that could have been devoted to Bartali’s fight for the resistance to focus on individual characters; it works in some cases such as with Felix (Ruairidh McDonald), the Black Shirt who longs to go back to being a violinist, and is accompanied by a hauntingly beautiful solo number.
While there’s a great deal made of the friendship between Bartali and Mario Carita (Fed Zanni), church orphan turned head Black Shirt, it doesn’t really have the emotional pull it should. Meanwhile there’s nowhere near enough time given to Bartali’s relationship with Adriana (Amy Di Bartolomeo) leaving a love story unexplored.
Leading the cast as Bartali, Josh St. Clair is marvellous, easily portraying the cockiness of the sudden celebrity, while balancing the precarious relationship he now has with his family. St. Clair’s vocals are superb, elevating the already beautiful songs to new heights.
Glory Ride has so much potential as the story is really compelling, but to really hit home with audiences it would need to spend more time on the daring exploits of Bartali and his co-conspirators, because this is where the real excitement lies.