Ride at Charing Cross Theatre – review
The new musical gets a full run in London
Reviewing new musical theatre can sometimes feel a bit like being asked to decide if a new baby is ugly…in front of its mother. It's probably the sheer difficulty of getting anything financed and produced, or it could be the vociferousness of the fans, or the fact that more people are involved in getting a musical to the stage, but it inevitably feels like there's more at stake than with a new play.
It's therefore a pleasure to encounter such a bracingly original, exquisitely crafted and generally delightful piece as Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams's Ride, which takes a piece of little-known history and makes it into something funny, robust and universal. American Annie Londonderry, née Kopchovsky, a Latvian Jewish immigrant, cycled around the world in the mid-1890s in a bid to win a bet and to ameliorate her financial circumstances.
That's basically the plot but Smith and Williams's show has lofty ambitions which, for the most part, it achieves. It tethers Londonderry's unusual tale to subtle feminist themes, assertions about the power of storytelling and, perhaps most interestingly, the gulf between reality and the half-truths we tell ourselves about our own lives. It's rich and surprisingly complex, but never feels preachy or worthy, and it thoroughly engages in Sarah Meadows's pitch-perfect production.
The story is framed through the idea that Londonderry (Liv Andrusier, sensational) is pitching herself as a newspaper columnist to a roomful of press men, and she enlists the help of a hapless maid (Yuki Sutton, equally terrific in a less showy role) who arrives with a tray of drinks at exactly the wrong/right moment. At first this Martha is understandably unwilling but is soon joining in the role playing with gusto, further underlying the running theme about the liberating power of make believe.
This being a 90-minute musical, the authors only hint at Londonderry's harder, darker edges, mostly presenting her as a spiky but lovable survivor, with sharp elbows, a twinkle in her eye and a bucket load of chutzpah. Andrusier's performance sometimes feels like an extended audition for Funny Girl…and that's not a criticism.
Vocally, the role is an absolute beast, demanding a multi-octave range, on top of carrying the bulk of the storytelling, finding an essential charm (she'd risk being pretty obnoxious without that, to be honest) and athleticism. She also, at required moments, needs to give us a glimpse of the character's inner anguish. Andrusier nails every single aspect of the role with an assurance and magnetism that takes the breath away. She's very funny, entirely engaging, and has a stunning voice that soars through Smith and Williams's vocal demands with sweetness and confidence. She's a real find.
That Yuki Sutton's Martha isn't left trailing in Andrusier's stellar wake, says much for her own formidable comic and vocal skills. Sutton brilliantly traces Martha's blossoming from appalled, awkward onlooker to empowered young woman. She's a tremendously likeable stage presence, and has the understated comedy instincts of a true clown: her bored French immigration officer almost deserves her own show. When the two women belt together, it's like blissful lightning in a bottle.
Musically, the show veers between pop and show tunes, with Sam Young's tiny but mighty band delivering Macy Schmidt's exquisite orchestrations with real flair. Reminiscent of Jason Robert Brown at his most light hearted, and Stephen Schwartz, the score has an appealing theatricality (the title song, rapturously performed by Ms Andrusier, is particularly exhilarating) and is genuinely memorable, with a galvanising energy that feels like an aural equivalent of riding a bike, including a certain degree of perhaps inevitable repetition. The lyrics are smart and tart, and Andrew Johnson's expertly judged sound design means that we actually get to hear all of them, which is pretty unusual, especially at this venue.
The storytelling sags a little about half way through and it would be nice to discover even more about this unconventional heroine and her life choices and motivations. What we have here is a very compelling sketch-cum-musical travelogue with some glorious songs, but where the intelligence and invention of the staging and the sheer blazing talent of the two performers do much of the heavy lifting. Despite those few reservations, this is a lovely, life-enhancing chamber musical, in a sublime production. Ms Smith and Mr Williams, I think your baby is beautiful!