Our very own theatreCat Libby Purves reviews Bronco Billy, a new musical at the Charing Cross Theatre.
Charing Cross Theatre
THAT OL’TIME WESTERN DREAM OF 1979
I have a weakness for this little theatre under the arches and its Players’ Bar. Honouring a music-hall history, and with some of the cheapest stalls seats in London, it often hosts smallscale but determined new musicals. Which is , of course, a medium with a high potential to be dead ropy. Yet there are happy memories and discoveries to be made. Here TITANIC – later touringly successful – was a delight, REBECCA was a decent night out, and George Takei\s ALLEGIANCE a good true personal story told with passion. So – admiring the cowboysish rust-draped and fringed gallery and illuminated stars – I settled to this one with the usual hopes. Some of them bore fruit, though infuriatingly not enough.
The book is by Dennis Hackin, a love story to his parents’ obsession with the old pioneer West. Chip Rosenbloom & John Torres wrote music and lyrics, with Michele Brourman. Quite a gang effort. It imagines a touring Wild West show in a truck which serves as home and circus tent (nicely realized in a big revolving box by Amy Jane Cook). Apparently it did well in LA and elsewhere, and here a British cast hurls itself at it with manic energy, as befits an oeuvre whose inspirations according to the director Hunter Bird include Frank Capra, the Muppets, Joan Collins in Dynasty, Roy Rogers, and Buffalo Bill. The setting is 1979, chosen apparently because “the country’s going crazy, partisan politics, civil rights threatened, technology exploding” and everyone needs an escape (Mrs Thatcher’s election gets referred to as part of this apparently terrifying year).
The story is exuberantly cartoonish : don’t go looking for subtle feelings, though Tarinn Callender as Billy manages to edge towards reality when he remembers a childhood in a Bronx boys’ home, Vietnam service, divorce and prison term, all delivered within minutes. He has collected his ramshackle troupe to fulfil the showbiz dream. One is a conjurer, another a stilt-walking clow, and Karen Muvundukure is a big, big wild voice who introduces it all. Josh Butler on, I am happy to report, a very lively professional debut as Lasso Leonard gets the deathless lyrics “there ain’t no feelin’/ quite like stealin’ cars”.
But this low-hope circus suddenly recruits by accident Antoinette (Emily Benjamin), another great voice fresh from serving as alternate in Cabaret. She is a chocolate-bar heiress whose husband and stepmother – as we see in neat drop-in New York scenes) have to kill her for the money within thirty days (“drink your murderatini” says the husband, one of the best lines in it). Hence her flight to the travelling circus. The problem is that the villains are so much more fun than the goodies; Victoria Hamilton Barritt as the Dynastyish diva stepmum raises the temperature with sheer physical presence and energy whenever she’s on, as does Alexander McMorran as the hit-man, Sinclair St Clair .
But although there were great laughs around me at the matinee, the jokes are oversignalled, and only a couple of songs offer a probability of surviving – notably `Just a Dance” and “Everything is Real”. Most disappointingly, despite being set amid the eternal cowboy dream, it all draws harder on bubblegum pop and soft-rock than on the fabulous legacy of Country and Western yearning and adventure. Not a memory of it, not anywhere that could be noticed. Why would you throw aside a five-star winner connection like that? Bring on the harmonicas and hooves.
Still, as one song says it’s `’time to escape for an hour or two / from a world that’s overwhelming you” . I wanted it to be better.
Bronco Billy plays to 7 April