sat 18/05/2024

Bronco Billy, Charing Cross Theatre - schmaltzy musical brings the feelgood factor just when it's needed | reviews, news & interviews

Bronco Billy, Charing Cross Theatre - schmaltzy musical brings the feelgood factor just when it's needed

Bronco Billy, Charing Cross Theatre - schmaltzy musical brings the feelgood factor just when it's needed

A warm bath of gentle laughs and comforting positivity

Tarrin Callender and Emily Benjamin in Bronco Billy The Musical - shaking hands not conventionsThe Other Richard

When entering a particular, well-populated region of MusicalTheatreLand, one has to check in a few items at the border. Weary cynicism, the desire for narrative coherence, that nerve that starts to throb when sentimentality oozes across the fourth wall – all need to be left behind. Like pantomime and opera, if you bring those attitudes with you, a dry desert is all you will see, but if you buy in, sometimes, not always, you’ll find oases too.

So it is with Bronco Billy The Musical, based on Clint Eastwood’s 1980 film from his somewhat uncomfortable period between flint-eyed gunslinging and making Serious Movies. Mercifully, no comedy primate sullied this movie, Clyde the orangutan gone the way of the PG Tips chimpanzees into less exploitative work, but there’s still a 20th century feel to the plot, one rooted in an unproblematic version of The Great American Dream that the ex-mayor of Carmel and registered Libertarian found appealing then and likely still does in his 94th year.It’s now that you see the importance of that advice about what to do at the border. It’s hardly the aspiration of the book’s writer, Dennis Hackin, to adapt his screenplay for the stage and create a David Hare-ish state of the nation polemic, he just wants us to have a little escapist fun in the dreary winter days spent collecting credit card bills off the doormat. Director, Hunter Bird, assisted wonderfully by Amy Jane Cook’s miraculously fungible set, understands that too – the question is whether they succeed.

Their characters are so familiar that they could form a new version of the commedia dell’arte’s types who turn up in various guises in so many scripts, even today. The upside of this over-familiarity with the people is our ease in their company – nobody’s going to surprise you, so we don’t need to think too hard. In some ways that’s a throwback to the Golden Age of Musicals when audiences were flattered rather than challenged.  

Billy is our can-do guy, the leader of the pack, long on folksy positive thinking, short on commercial nous. Like his buddies in the travelling Wild West circus looking to make it big in Hollywood, he’s a misfit and ex-miscreant, but he dreams big (and is keen to tell that to anyone within earshot) and his artless ways just about keep the show on the road. Tarrin Callender, an alumnus of the original London production of Hamilton, sings well (the voices are uniformly super throughout quite a starry cast) and does what he can with a character we see through from the moment he opens his mouth. 

Emily Benjamin’s heiress on the run, Antoinette, is Annie Oakley to his Frank Butler (the set up may be similar, but the personalities very different from those conjured by Dorothy and Herbert Fields for Irving Berlin). Again, it’s as clear as day that this odd couple will find themselves, but not without a fallout or two along the way. Though nothing is made of the ethnicity of the characters, I felt a little uneasy at the glibness of the educated WASP riding into town to rescue the Vietnam vet, ex-con, Brooklyn boy with a bit of her ‘White Saviour’ learning and hardheaded book-keeping. The agency seemed too one way across the class divide for 2024, though, to be fair, nobody would have blinked an eye in 1979 when the events are set.

If that’s a join-the-dots romance, supported by Billy’s gang of heart-of-gold troupers with backstories you can guess instantly, the real fun comes with the villains. They’re led by another comic and vocal tour-de-force from Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (pictured above with Chris Jared and Silas Wyatt-Barke), taking her cornering of the market in evil stepmother turns all the way to 11 as Antoinette’s, well, evil stepmother. Part Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington and part Disney’s Cruella De Vil, she gets great support from Alexander McMorran’s wildly over the top hitman, Sinclair St Clair, and Silas Wyatt-Barke’s oh-so-toffish John Arlington, Antoinette’s gold-digging husband. 

In a score by Chip Rosenbloom and John Torres that is pleasant if not memorable, imbalanced by a surfeit of ‘I Want’ songs and paeans to the importance of self-esteem, Hamilton-Barritt leads the standout  number, a riotous disco ditty with a dance routine that is as funny as Ted Striker’s in Airplane. Some might complain that the execution may not match choreographer, Alexzandra Sarmiento’s, highest standards, but that was half the fun. It was joyous to behold and damn near stopped the show. 

That takes me back to where this review started. There’s a joy in this production that overwhelms its obvious flaws – after all, how often can you say that a six-foot man in a pink sequin jumpsuit is not the most ludicrous sight on stage? Perhaps in high summer spirits or in December with its slew of forced Christmas show jokes, Bronco Billy The Musical would be received differently, but I, and plenty more, came out smiling for a few precious moments before we turned on our phones and the latest news flashed up.

Billy himself would be pleased with that and so should everyone involved in this show. That’s a harder trick to pull off than faking a few shots at exploding plates and swinging a lasso, but it's more necessary too.       

Victoria Hamilton-Barritt's dance routine was joyous to behold and damn near stopped the show


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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