Ever since ‘Jersey Boys’ scored a hit on Broadway (and around the world) in 2005, producers have seen the documentary-style jukebox musical as a surefire path to success. All you need is an artist or group with a great back catalogue, a good creative team and kerr-ching, you’re in the money. From Tina Turner to the Motown founder Berry Gordy, everyone who’s anyone in music seems to be getting in on the act. It’s the musical theatre equivalent of the superhero origin story.
‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ is another example of this genre. Premiering in 2013 in San Francisco, the show traces the blossoming of King’s songwriting career 1958 to the eventual stellar success of her 1971 solo album.
We begin the show at the same point we end (a pretty overused storytelling device) with King (played by Bronté Barbé) sat at her piano on the stage of Carnegie Hall, pausing from performing for a moment to take in her enormous success, before plunging back to the late 1950’s, to the 16 year old version of her on the cusp of selling her first song.
The ‘1650 Broadway Medley’ cleverly combines numerous hits from that period and introduces us to the ’songwriting factory’ of the Brill Building, Times Square. It’s here that King meets Donnie Kirshner (Adam Howden), the music publisher who would loom large for the majority of her career.
Soon Carole, who has been told by Kirshner to work on her lyrics, meets playwright Gerry Goffin (Kane Oliver Parry) and the two very quickly strike up a romance, forming a partnership that is both personal and professional: Gerry writing the lyrics to Carole’s melodies. Carole quickly falls pregnant and delivers the news to Goffin just before they debut their latest number ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ to Donnie. As Carole gets overcome with joy singing the iconic song at the piano, even the most cold-hearted reviewer (i.e. me) could be forgiven for getting a bit moist-eyed!
One of the biggest flaws of this show is the tendency to repeat. There were many, many occasions when the songwriting duo would think of a song, play it in full to Kirshner and then ruminate over which artist would be best to record it. We’d then hear the full song again, performed by The Drifters, The Shirelles or whoever. I found this an annoyingly repetitive device – it felt like a thin story was being stretched as far as possible to make a full length show.
As well King and Goffin, we are also introduced to another burgeoning songwriting duo, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann – who have the office next door. Played by Amy Ellen Richardson and Matthew Gonsalves respectively, this duo really lit up the stage whenever they appeared and both made fantastic use of their supporting roles. Weil and Mann also wrote hit after hit, with their ‘Unchained Melody’ raising the New Wimbledon Theatre’s roof as performed by The Righteous Brothers (played by Grant McConvery and Ben Morris).
With problems in the relationship between King and Goffin becoming insurmountable, Carole eventually decides to go it alone, in every sense, finding her greatest success in doing so. We see her discover her voice as a performer at the ‘Bitter End’ club and decide to move to LA, leaving New York behind.
Before she goes though, there’s her leaving song to her best friends back at the Brill Building. ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ is another musical highlight as Weil, Mann and Kirshner eventually join Carole’s solo with some rousing and intricate harmonies. After a brief visit to the recording of King’s diamond selling, four grammy award-winning solo album ‘Tapestry’, we’re back at Carnegie Hall for the closing number of the show: ‘Beautiful’.
The show is an enjoyable couple of hours at the theatre and the cast is generally strong. Bronté Barbé does a good job as the loveably down-to-earth King but her bright, powerful vocal does sometimes stray a little too much into an impersonation for my taste. Kane Oliver Parry does loveable rogue affably but the writing doesn’t help him find the truth in Goffin’s breakdown.
The ensemble is well utilised in the show, with most performers getting at least one moment to shine. However the choreography in the musical tribute numbers (The Drifers and Shirelles) seemed to me to be lacking in uniformity and precision at this late stage in the tour’s run.
This is an enjoyable, if uninspiring, evening at the theatre and judging by the sold out crowd at the performance I visited, ‘Beautiful’ continues to pull in the punters, in spite of any flaws in the material. Kerr-ching!
Reviewed by Jody Tranter
Photo: Craig Sugden