Sunday, March 01, 2015

BEAUTIFUL: The Carole King Musical

Well it took a while - and one crushing experience - but I have finally seen BEAUTIFUL, the musical based on the life and work of one of my favourite singers Carole King.

Of course I enjoyed it - with her wonderful catalogue of songs who wouldn't - but maybe a too-thorough knowledge of her story made it seem particularly thin at times.

We had tickets for the show two days before but arriving at the Aldwych with ten minutes to spare before the 7:30pm start time, we were greeted with the news that they had brought the opening night forward so the show had started at 7pm - and didn't we get their e-mail sent at 4:15 that afternoon?  I was shooting basilisk stares at all and sundry especially when their initial recompense was drinks vouchers rather than replacement seats.  As we trudged off I thought aloud that maybe the opening night had been brought forward so Carole King could attend.  Of course I was wrong.

It was actually Carole and fellow legendary songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil who attended and who joined the cast at the curtain call.  So, you know, nothing to be angry about.

Carole King was raised in post-war Brooklyn, her contemporaries including Neil Sedaka whom she dated in school inspiring his hit OH CAROL, Paul Simon whom she recorded demos with, as well as Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand.  While in college Carole began writing songs with Gerry Goffin, their relationship lead to Carole expecting a baby so they married in 1959, Carole was 17 and Gerry was 20.  Soon they were both working during the day and writing songs in the evening for Don Kirshner at Aldon Music's offices at 1650 Broadway.

Like the nearby Brill Building, 1650 Broadway was a hive of musical activity with songwriters assigned their own rooms where they could write hits for the artists of the day.  Next to Carole and Gerry's room were the team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and a deep friendship grew along with a competitive spirit: each trying for bigger chart successes and pop music innovation.

More comfortable behind the scenes than performing, Carole also liked being a New Jersey housewife but Gerry chafed at domesticity.  Still only 23, he felt tied-down and several affairs culminated in Earl-Jean McCrea of The Cookies having their child.  The astonishing thing is that he would admit these relationships to Carole who accepted his infidelities not to break up their partnership.  However his drug use and resultant mental health issues eventually led to divorce.  Carole moved to Los Angeles and slowly gained the courage to finally step into the spotlight, resulting in her second album TAPESTRY becoming one of the best-selling albums of all-time.

Douglas McGrath's book has to cover all this and he delivers quite a few laughs along the way - usually from the Mann and Weil characters - and it certainly has a good pace but in the process it reduces Carole and Gerry's personal life to the thinnest of soap opera situations.  Carole's triumphant 1971 Carnegie Hall concert is the climax of the show but is also serves for McGrath to give us the cliche of Gerry making an unannounced visit to her dressing room before she goes on... hey if it's good enough for FUNNY GIRL, MEMPHIS etc.  I did wonder how constrained he was as to what he could include?

Marc Bruni has directed a slick, sparkling and colourful production that does nothing to stand in the way of the Goffin/King and Weil/Mann classics that keep coming one after another, some used as songs within the storyline and others as stand-alone numbers celebrating The Drifters (ON BROADWAY), The Shirelles (WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW), Little Eva (THE LOCO-MOTION) and The Righteous Brothers (YOU'VE LOST THAT LOVIN' FEELING).

The performances are good from a largely-unknown cast: Katie Brayben has a sweet quality as Carole although McGrath gives her little to do but blub for most of the second act and although a good singer she doesn't have that quality of huskiness that makes Carole King's voice so beguiling.  Needless to say the audience snapped to it's feet at her curtain call in a response worthy of Pavlov.  Alan Morrissey does all he can with Gerry but again McGrath gives him little to actually get his teeth into.

Lorna Want and Ian McIntosh have better opportunities to shine as Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann while Glynis Barber has a few nice moments as Carole's mother.  The supporting cast give it their all with a special shout-out to Ed Currie for his excellent recreation of The Righteous Brother's Bill Medley.

If I sound overly critical it's because I so wanted to enjoy the show - and I did - but maybe, as I said before, knowing too much about the subject can be a bad thing.

Maybe a second visit is required to relax and just enjoy the show?

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