Book writer: Douglas McGrath
Lyrics and Music: Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Man, Cynthia Weil
Director: Marc Bruni
Choreographer: Josh Prince
Reviewer: Laura Stimpson
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical is a biographical jukebox musical about the life and songs of American singer-songwriter Carole King. You might not think you know many of King’s songs, but believe me, you do, the musical provoked many an “I didn’t know she wrote that” moment. To name just a few, her songs include The Loco-Motion, Take Good Care of My Baby and Natural Woman.
The musical follows King, played by Bronte Barbe, from age 16 in the late 1950s; a sweet girl with a passion for music and songwriting. We watch her team up with and then marry aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin. Following the success of the Shirelles hit Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow and a contract with Donnie Kirshner’s songwriting business their success continues. A seven-year run of chart hits follows, until Goffin realises he’s bored and has a series of affairs. This story runs parallel to a subplot following fellow songwriter and lyricist Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, their story adds a well-received comic reprieve to the struggles that King and Goffin face.
Whilst the story of King’s life itself certainly won’t set the world on fire, there is something about the simplicity of the backstory that really works to make this show a success. She is a character most of us can relate to, her life wasn’t tragic nor was it rock and roll, but the story demonstrates how the resilience built through sadness and hardship can make a person flourish.
The first half of the show mainly takes the format of the songwriter at a piano turning into a performance by one of a number of groups from the 60s including The Drifters, the Shirelles and The Righteous Brothers. There are some great performances and comedy injected into these performances. This format, however, does start to become a production line of songs and feels like it’s getting a little tiresome. This is the only gripe in this musical and is well saved in the second half when the format changes completely. It seems that you can’t be a fantastic lyricist without your fair share of battle wounds, after the break up of her marriage and dealing with her husband’s mental health problems, King has certainly acquired those. She starts writing alone but can’t work out who would be suitable to perform these new songs, of course, the answer has been there all along.
Bronte Barbe’s portrayal of the shy and unassuming King is nothing short of perfect. She wins the audience over immediately and it is this that keeps the audience interested throughout as we watch her hold everything together and her confidence flourish. It is not until the end that we really appreciate what Barbe is vocally capable of. A spine-tingling performance of Natural Woman to complete her record while a strong and brilliant performance of Beautiful, ‘live’ from Carnegie Hall is simply stunning. Whilst the rest of the cast cannot be faulted, at the end of the show, it is Barbe’s performance alone that makes this musical very special and one to be remembered for a very long time.
A strong and unassuming musical, beautifully crafted to portray the life of a woman who was just that. Highly recommended.
Reviewed on 29 May 2018 | Image: Contributed