Glory Ride


Gino Bartali was a real-life cycling athlete who helped save Jewish children from the Nazis during the war by smuggling documents to them, then taking them over the border to escape. The premise of basing a musical based on his story was inspired.

The cast of villagers burst onto the stage against a painted backdrop of white buildings with red tiled rooves representing Florence in the distance. We are in a place where Bartali was born, but he must progress his career past the limits of this small town.  It is a good start to the show – we know where we are and we are ready to invest in these people. The chorus harmonising takes us to this world of Mussolini’s fascism.

In 1933, the price of sponsorship on the national stage is support for the fascist government.  The chorus singing ‘It Only Takes One Hero’ kicks us off into Bartali’s cycling world, winning the Tour de France and making him a national hero. If the audience have read the programme, they already know that his real heroism will be saving children from the Nazi’s persecution.

Bartali is asked by the Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa to join him helping the children escape, ‘it’s a matter of saving souls’, the Cardinal tells him. Niall Sheehy provides us with a moving performance, notably in the song 800 souls, those of the people they are trying to save.

Of all the villagers, only Bartali is allowed outside the town under the pretext of practising his cycling in the Tuscan hills, everyone else is trapped in the village as the borders close in. Threatening Blackshirts strut around, look down from balconies and menace the villagers. Bartali is to take documentation to children hidden in churches and convents across the country. At first he is the reluctant hero, but once he realises the extent of the threat, he decides he must take the children right across the border hidden in his bicycle trailer all the way to ultimate safety.

Josh St Clair is outstanding as the leading man, playing Gino as an affable rustic who is forced into doing great things by force of circumstance. His superb voice rings out, powerful with emotion. His legs alone are worthy of those tiny shorts he wears. The best part of the evening is the relationship between him and his childhood friend Mario Carita. We see a character shift in Carita as, once made a Major in the Blackshirts, he is tasked with the job of hunting down those responsible for helping the children escaping, who are, of course, Bartali and the cardinal who has taken his confession since he was a boy.  However, the absence of any real character development in some of the parts and the lack of dramatic tension leaves us feeling a bit flat. Though we see people being shot, we are not invested in them enough to feel the full sense of shock which is needed. Though the cast are wonderful, they were not given enough depth to play with. Nor did I really believe in the relationship between Bartali and the girlfriend, admirably sang by  Amy Di Bartolomeo, again this is more to do with the book – they only kiss in the middle of Act II which seems a bit late for me.

Nonetheless, Fed Zanni as Major Mario Carita gives a perfect performance, and together with St Clair, their duets held the evening together.  Indeed the harmonies are a delight throughout. The songs were sang with gusto by all and the arrangements are admirable. The fact that each of the singers were mic’ed up helped enormously for sound and made a real difference to the show. But none of the lyrics or melodies are memorable enough to have me singing along afterwards, though they worked well in the play. A standout performance is given in a tender solo by Ruairidh McDonald as the violinist whose life was ruined by the fascist who ‘ taught me to kill’ and crushed his violin.

A cast of 14 allows the development of more characters with their stories in the second half. Notably, church accountant and document forger Giorgio Nissim comes into his own, played with alternating timidity and strength by Daniel Robinson.

Part of the problem of working to a true story is that the facts get in the way of the drama.  In the beginning Mussolini’s regime was not explicitly anti-Semitic.  Increased relations with the Nazis made them more so until 1943 when the Germans took over northern Italy and imposed an even more tyrannical regime which involved rounding up the Jews and others considered undesirables.

Staging this dramatically is a challenge when the main story is about one man and his bicycle.  The story of Bartali’s clandestine work is powerful and the changes in the political situation might be true to the facts, but they confuse the drama in what should be The Sound of Music with Wheels.