The National Youth Music Theatre seems to have a tradition of presenting musicals set in a bygone era: in its illustrious history stretching back to 1976, previous productions have included The Ragged Child, set in 19th-century London, Pendragon, about the Arthurian legends of the late 5th and early 6th centuries, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a story set in Ancient Egypt. This new work, Billy the Kid, takes its audiences back to the United States of 1837 (when there were 26 states, as opposed to today’s 50).
It’s certainly exciting and appealing to the listening ear. Even without seeing the production, but merely listening to standalone musical numbers (I can only assume this is not an entirely sung-through production), the sense of what is going on is often highly vivid, from the bullying commonplace to many school playgrounds the world over, to the specific Wild West setting of the story proper. A 19-piece band, directed by Charlie Ingles, sometimes sounds as though they are at least twice that number. It’s not the easiest of scores to navigate, with changes in tempo and style happening all the time, even within the same song (for instance, in ‘Girls Girls Girls’).
The production follows the conventions of musical theatre, or at least some of them. The ‘I wish’ number, “Into The Land of Dreams” sees the lead character, William Antrim, aka ‘Billy the Kid’ (Ben Lewis, the 12-year-old NYMT member, as opposed to the Ben Lewis who stars at the time of writing in the lead role in the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera) set out his aspirations and ambitions. By the end of the recording, there’s a satisfyingly positive resolution to the way forward for young William, his classmates and their teacher. This would, I should imagine, send theatre audiences away with the sort of warm and glowing feeling that a musical with an affirmative message tends to do.
‘Happy Birthday, Uncle Sam’ is reminiscent of the title number in Oklahoma!, and ‘The Barn Dance’ like the tune of the same name in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, both so full of joy and celebration. Some of the accents in this cast recording are more Lincolnshire, England than Lincoln, New Mexico, though the overall compelling delivery of the spoken elements of the script (or as much as the cast recording exposes its listeners to) somewhat overrides that point, and I hasten to add some members of the company undeniably nail it with precision. I found the large ensemble numbers, such as ‘Liberty Belle’ quite spine-tingling; Sam Briscoe (Fraser Jacobs) and Mary Meacham (Aliyah Odoffin) border on melodrama in ‘What Am I To You?’, but, I am thrilled to report, they don’t cross the line. It’s a welcome ballad after so many tubthumping numbers.
Overall, I get the feeling this would be quite exhausting to watch as a production – the music lends itself to substantial and energetic dancing. The musical numbers drive the narrative forward, and while there is some, perhaps inevitable, repetition, I didn’t get the impression that if I were sitting in a theatre watching the musical that I would be waiting for a song to finish so the plot resume unfolding. An absorbing story about strength in unity that seems very timely in a world that can feel so divided, this sparkling and lively recording wonderfully captures some exceptional young talent.
Review by Chris Omaweng
William Antrim is small for his age; he’s quiet and shy, which makes him an easy target for lazy bullies. But in his dreams, he’s Billy the Kid, a courageous cowboy, riding the range with the sun in his eyes. An all-American hero.
Now, if only his dreams could become a reality… Billy the Kid is an adventure story, a magical, musical comedy set in a colourful world of cowboys and bandits, cactus trees and caballeros. A musical for all the family, smart enough for the most demanding young audience and silly enough for the grumpiest grown-ups – saddle up for a journey back in time, to a land where the bravest heroes are only a whip-crack away!
BILLY’S SONG from BILLY THE KID – Original Cast Recording
Auburn Jam Records and National Youth Music Theatre are excited to have released the Live Cast Recording of Billy The Kid: A New Musical by Ben Frost & Richard Hough. Commissioned and developed by NYMT, this premiere production performed at The Leicester Curve in August 2017 is now available to download via all major online retailers.
For full album & production credits and production photos, visit billythekid.auburnjam.co.uk