Book: Douglas McGrath
Music & Lyrics: Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil & Barry Mann
Director: Marc Bruni
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
Fresh from a two year run in the West End and with the original production still going strong on Broadway, Beautiful – The Carole King Musical arrives in Manchester over Christmas in an affectionately told biography of Brooklyn teenager Carol Klein and how she became Carole King, one of the most successful singer-songwriters of the twentieth century.
Framed by King’s 1971 live concert at Carnegie Hall the audience are then transported back towhere it all began, as sixteen-year-old Carole meets future songwriting partner and husband Gerry Goffin (Kane Oliver Parry) and culminates with the success of her Grammy-winning solo album Tapestry at age twenty-nine.
The shows success hinges on the casting of its leading lady and Bronté Barbé proves to be more than up to the task. With a rich, mature voice she captures the essence of King and is an immediately endearing presence. Her teenage enthusiasm is infectious and her transformation from shy schoolgirl to solo superstar is convincing. As she sits at the piano and begins one of King’s most familiar hits, she sings with such authenticity and sincerity that it is as if hearing the song for the first time; you can believe it is being composed before your eyes.
There is strong support from Amy Ellen Richardson as Cynthia Weil; her poise and elegance contrasts with King’s modesty and Richardson has wonderful expression, forming an amusing double act with Matthew Gonsalves as Barry Mann. Weil and Mann have a friendly rivalry with King and Goffin and the show also includes some of their hits such as Uptown and On Broadway.
Beautiful‘s strength is its score, with a back catalogue including the likes of You’ve Got a Friend and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman there are plenty of crowd-pleasing favourites throughout. The audience clearly have an urge to sing along, although it is a shame that some can’t leave it to the curtain call; when an emotional Carole tenderly reprises Will You Love Me Tomorrow the most poignant moment of the show is lost somewhat in the chorus of voices from across the stalls.
Having penned hits for groups such as The Drifters, The Shirelles and The Righteous Brothers there are recreations of their performances complete with glittering costumes and finger clicking choreography. It helps illustrate the vast range of tracks King and Goffin produced but in the show these tributes feel a little like padding to a relatively uneventful first Act.
Therein lies the main shortcoming of the show; the music is vibrant and varied but the book from Douglas McGrath plays it too safe. There is some drama to be had in the superior second Act however even these moments (Goffin’s ‘nervous breakdown’; their subsequent divorce) are merely touched upon but held at an almost too respectful distance. It never feels like McGrath gets to the heart of the characters and what makes them tick; King has led a far more interesting life than the polite but slightly bland narrative suggests.
Consequently, Beautiful may not quite make you feel the earth move, however fans of the era will enjoy hearing classic hits brought to life in a charming performance from Barbé. The uplifting finale will send audiences out into the cold winter nights with hearts warmed by this pleasantly enjoyable show.
Runs until 6 January 2018 | Image: Birgit Ralf Brinkhoff