Coming into this show, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Reading the synopsis, I didn’t see how the concept related to the real Billy the Kid (which the title clearly alludes to), and the poster’s allusion to the trans pride flag completely went over my head. But I came out thoroughly impressed. Gez Mercer and Conway McDermott’s new musical, which is receiving a semi-staged run for three nights at the Vaudeville Theatre, turned out to be a powerful show with a moving score, performed brilliantly by a vocally thrilling cast.
While the story is not overly ground-breaking, it works as a vehicle for exploring important themes and promoting messages of self-acceptance and hope – timely, given our current age of divisiveness. Billie Belle (played captivatingly by Olivia Saunders) is a girl living in a bible belt town with hopes of getting a city college scholarship to escape her ‘White-Trash Girl’ life, together with her childhood sweetheart, Brody Benson (performed with beautiful sensitivity by Rob Kershaw). The perfect dream is seemingly dashed, however, when she discovers Brody has been sexting the school’s queer outcast.
The musical is still in development, and indeed, the show could be tighter. At times, the production feels a little chaotic, with ideas being introduced but not fully explored. And while Mercer surely has a future as a capable composer and lyricist, there are many songs that are too brief and don’t exactly go anywhere. Maybe the goal was to achieve ‘sung-through’ status, but the story definitely calls for it to be a book musical, and not every character needs their own number. Songs should be earned, and here, they all could use more breathing space. There’s a gripping moment when Billie sings about her commitment to supporting Brody in ‘My Favourite Guy’ (sung with great verve by Saunders), but it’s not clear how she overcomes her initial reaction to him being gay.
The show makes a passing mention of being set in 2015 America, but this doesn’t quite come across – indeed, Mercer, a Liverpudlian, has admitted to never having been to the US. This isn’t exactly a criticism – it just means the story takes place more in an idyllic ‘Americana’ backdrop, a sort of timeless, fantastical world, intentionally or unintentionally maintained by the whimsical quality of the pastel coloured-costumes (inspired by the trans pride flag). This allows the story to feel universal, but it also makes the show less grounded and lacking in weight. It doesn’t necessarily need to be rooted more in history, but it should be offset with more depth and heart to its characters, many of which appear hammy and caricature-y.
One major exception is Betty Belle, Billie’s mother, though this is in large part due to Jodie Steele’s irresistible performance. Steele injects so much precision and honesty into the role, carefully balancing her being a neglectful mother and fiercely strong-willed woman. She gives the character and her relationship with Billie much needed humanity, with all of her scenes being a joy to watch – from her howling ‘Cowboy Thunder’ to her beautiful reconciliation with her daughter.
Setting aside my picky gripes, the production offers an enjoyable night out to celebrate self-worth, loaded with powerful moments brought to life by truly versatile actors – the life-affirming and hopeful ending is definitely earned by the hardworking cast (directed by Kerry Kyriacos Michael). Ryan Kopel, Hannah Victoria and Ki Griffin bring in some edge as the town’s queer outsiders, passionately singing about their right to be who they are, while Phoebe-Loveday Raymond, Yuki Sutton and Natasha J Barnes add marvellous comedy as bible-thumping classmates, particularly when celebrating their identities in ‘Southern Girls’. With further polish to the book, along with a larger ensemble and set, I’m sure the show will be a homerun when it inevitably gets a fully staged production.