Glory Ride ★★

Glory Ride, a musical about Italian cycling legend Gino Bartali and his secret missions during World War II, has its world premiere at Charing Cross Theatre

Gino Bartali was an Italian sporting legend. A champion road cyclist, he won the Giro d’Italia three times and the Tour de France twice and was beloved by Italians everywhere. But the story of his clandestine war-time efforts emerged in a 1978 book.

After Germany began its occupation of Northern Italy, the gates of Florence were closed letting no-one in or out. With the exception of Gino Bartali who was granted permission to move freely to continue his long-distance training. Bartali was asked to smuggle fake ID documents between Assisi and Florence by the Cardinal of Florence, the Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa. He hid the falsified identity cards and other secret documents within the frame of his bicycle. Even when stopped by the fascist authorities, his fame as the country’s cycling champion convinced them that his bike’s mechanics were so precise that it could not be tampered with. 

This fascinating story sounds the perfect basis for a potentially-intriguing piece of musical theatre. Glory Ride has been developed through workshops in New York and Los Angeles featuring top Broadway talent. It then was performed as a concert version last year at The Other Palace. Olivier-Award winning Kelly Devine came on board as director for the show’s world premiere at Charing Cross Theatre. With this creative pedigree and such tantalising source material, our expectations were high…

All images by Marc Brenner
And yet…
The first impression that there’s something’s rotten in the state of Tuscany comes early in the piece when Gino’s younger brother Giulio dies in a cycling accident. It ranks alongside the train in Whistle Down The Wind for the most cringe-inducing theatrical death. Here, the cast facing the audience react to the sound effect by madly over-reacting.  It comes across as unintentionally camp rather than a formative tragedy.
Tonally the show is as uneven as a cycle ride through the Dolomites. The antagonists, the Italian blackshirts are panto fascists. When their leader declares “I don’t want blood on my rug”, you begin to wonder if you are hearing these lines correctly or if someone’s slipped something into your gelato! Swishing around in a leather trench coat and snarling, Commander Graziano has all the menace of soggy bruschetta. Elsewhere the cast try to emote an earnestness, usually during their songs, but when they are tasked with delivering cycling metaphors in lyrics or endless pedestrian rhymes (not since Ben Elton entered the musical fray have “France” and “chance”, “curse” and “worse”, “tried” and “died” been so unapologetically offered) with a straight face, pathos freewheels too easily from pathos into bathos.
Part of the problem with Victoria and Todd Buchholz‘s book is the central character is rarely more than a cipher. The character on the page is a heroic cyclist. He goes about doing heroic cyclist things. It’s scriptwriting by AI. Not at all the fault of actor Josh St. Clair. He is handsome, has a superb singing voice and an enviable pair of legs that proclaim he is no stranger to a Peloton class. But the script gives him nothing to play with to make Gino into anything approaching a real person.

Uncomfortably in places, the script attempts some (intentional) comedy. Giorgio ‘Nico’ Nissim played valiantly by Daniel Robinson at least manages to wrangle some recognisable human traits. As Bartali’s manager and secretly, an expert document forger, he exudes a harried fastidiousness. Conjuring likeability and some wry comedy, even he cannot make a punchline ending in “Blue Nun” land. 

Given the weight of the subject matter and the heroism around which the story resolves, there is a glaring omission at the heart of Glory Ride. This musical about saving hundreds of Jews from persecution seems bafflingly free from Jewish characters. Giorgio is revealed to be Jewish but none of the characters who receive Gino’s help feature. Their personal stories of having to disguise their identity with false papers within the city or have their children flee Florence are not told. Considering the intention of Fascists to erase Jews in Italy, the irony of their stage absence is not lost.

Instead of exploring the relationship between the unlikely saviour and those he helped, Glory Ride offers up a perfunctory gentile love triangle between Gino, his eventual wife Adriana (the always reliable Amy Di Bartolomeo) and Mario (Fed Zanni), her previous boyfriend who joins the Blackshirts. Scene follows scene in such quick succession that nothing ever lands. Characters never get time to breath so as a result, we never feel involved in their stories. Too often director Kelly Devine has characters wander off with no greater motivation than she wants the stage cleared for a solo song. 

Musically Victoria Buchholz’s songs tend towards the banal and instantly forgettable. Most have a pop rock vibe, reminiscent of something like Notre Dame De Paris but without the grandeur. A number where Gino’s father disavows him inexplicably has a Glee-like peppiness. Di Bartolomeo’s Act 1 belter, Promises, sees her showboating riffs and runs but it comes across as so American, so lacking the show’s European aesthetic, you wonder if it belongs in a different production. 800 Souls is the standout number, with a soaring emotional heft, delivered beautifully by Niall Sheehy‘s Cardinal Dalla Costa. 

The overwhelming feeling is frustration. You get the sense that there is potential to tell this story in a musical, but despite all the workshops and previous iterations, it arrives at Charing Cross feeling underdeveloped and unprepared for its premiere. So many choices feel like a first outing. That an award-winning director still hasn’t marshalled a decision on whether the cast collectively are not going to do an Italian accent or try a bit of an Italian accent or all attempt a heavy one at this stage of Glory Ride feels remiss. Why do the cast talk about Florence but sing about Firenze? Why does PJ McEvoy‘s set design depict the famous cityscape with Brunelleschi’s iconic cupola on the Duomo and the Campanile di Giotto as being lower than other parts of Florence. And why mountains when the city is surrounded by rolling hills? 

Despite the cast’s best efforts, they have an uphill challenge of misguided book, uninspired songs and direction that has failed to take the wheel. This production has taken so many wrong turns, it brings no glory to its emotive and important source material. Sad to say, Glory Ride is the kind of musical that gives musical theatre a bad name. 

Not a theatrical tour de force ★★