Book: Douglas McGrath
Music/Lyrics: Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil
Director: Marc Bruni
Reviewer: John Roberts
“These songs are about me, and who better to sing them than myself”
A powerful statement that is delivered towards the middle of Act Two, when Carole King, here played with an assured and confident performance from Bronté Barbé realises that actually, she is the talent behind so many of her successes, that despite the people around her, she was the one who had the heart which put the magic into every beat of her songs.
Having sold her first song to music publisher Donnie Kirsner at just aged 16, Carole King became one of the biggest songwriters of the 60s with hits for The Drifters (Up on the Roof) and the Shirelles (Will You Love Me Tomorrow)and even gave her babysitter Little Eva the chance to become a star with party song The Locomotion – the hits just kept on coming wih songs performed and recorded by stars including Donny Osmond, The Beatles and The Animals… with that lists it’s no denying that King is one of the most prolific singer/songwriters still alive today and Beautiful plays a true homage to her talent and turbulent life story.
Unlike many Jukebox musicals which shoehorn songs into a weak and frankly questionable plot, Beautifulhas a true story to tell, and it doesn’t shy away from the facts, we learn about how King got married and pregnant at an early age, how her marriage to lyricist Gerry Goffin (Kane Oliver Parry), was fraught with insecurities and adultery and how “friendly” competition between King/Goffin and writing partners Barry Mann (Matthew Gonsalves) and Cynthia Weil (Amy Ellen Richardson) fuelled a “music factory” producing some of the biggest musical hits ever written.
As you would expect with a show where the music is the soul of the piece, here, every number is delivered with a fierce commitment to the material, the ensemble who manage to each have their moment throughout the piece depicting numerous bands and singers ensure they aren’t just on stage to make a crowd. Richardson and Gonsalves bring many comic moments as the slightly eccentric writing duo Mann/Weil. Carol Royle brings gravitas and weight as King’s mother Genie Klein, while Adam Howden enjoys his moment as music publisher Donnie Kirshner – it’s just a shame we don’t hear more of his voice in the production.
Under Marc Bruni’s slick direction, Beautiful flows with real pace, ensuring there is a lack superfluous padding which many productions feel the need to incorporate – this is helped by Derek McLane multifunctioning set, which again strips away the unnecessary and ensures only the important signifying elements appear. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design is fluid and during the musical numbers cheekily colourful in its presentation. It also should be noted that Beautiful is one of the best shows of recent years to open at the Empire and have crystal clear sound.
However strong Beautiful is in the many different departments, it’s only as strong as the actor holding it all together and here Barbé does that with an assurance befitting an actor many years her senior. She nail’s King’s mannerisms and vocal traits and sounds truly wonderful – her rendition of (You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman being sublime. This is the performance of her career and one that will surely cement her as leading lady material for many many years to come.
Beautiful is everything you want in a musical; excellent performers, strong songs, spot on production elements and a good book (Douglas McGrath). Its a musical that leaves you with a spring in a step and a sudden urge to get out and listen to the multi-award winning album Tapestry all over again and that can never be a bad thing!
Runs until Sat 5 May 2018 | Image: Contributed