Beautiful – The Carole King Musical – Birmingham Hippodrome

Book: Douglas McGrath

Music and Lyrics: Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil

Director: Marc Bruni

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

There can’t be many people who won’t be familiar with a song or two by Carole King – with first husband Gerry Goffin she wrote loads of chart hits for other artists that have become standards including Will You Love Me Tomorrow, The Locomotion, Up on the Roof, – all of which feature in this jukebox musical tribute to King, her life, and work.

Beautiful takes King’s story, starting with the teenage King giving up her teacher training to write and sell songs and the meeting with her collaborator and husband. It follows their commercial success, but also the ultimate failure of their marriage, ending with the release of the very personal Tapestry that set her firmly on track for success as a singer-songwriter herself.

In fact, the show is really about two songwriting couples and their longstanding friendship and rivalry. Soon after King and Goffin have secured an office with Aldon Music, King meets Cynthia Weil, a lyricist seeking a musician: enter Barry Mann and a classic and long-lasting songwriting partnership is born. The two couples have adjacent offices and are very competitive, putting out hit after hit for such artists as Bobby Vee, The Drifters and The Shirelles.

The first half feels a little documentary-like as the rise of the King-Goffin partnership is charted. The book is sparkling and witty, the transitions slick and there is real chemistry between Bronté Barbé’s King and Kane Oliver Parry’s Goffin (and, to a lesser extent, between Amy Ellen Richardson’s Weil and Matthew Gonsalves’ Mann), but the songs mainly act as punctuation, performed in period style by members of the ensemble playing The Drifters and The Shirelles. Two notable exceptions are Up on the Roof – in which Goffin foreshadows some of his issues to come as he recalls his way of coping with a difficult upbringing – and the first act closer, One Fine Day, sung with terrific feeling by King as a response to Goffin’s revelation that he feels trapped and wants an affair with Janelle Woods.

However, the second half, with its soundtrack mainly from Tapestry, moves up an emotional gear. As King’s marriage twitches in its death throes, the power of this music shines through with each song delivering powerful and unremitting emotional punches leaving the audience reeling.

Central is the performance of Barbé as King. Her growth from awkward teen to young wife and mother and ultimately to self-assured performer is well documented and her powerful voice is reminiscent of King’s throughout. Parry charts Goffin’s issues as he struggles to come to terms with his feelings of being trapped and to find some way of coping, albeit one that one might feel is inappropriate. Richardson is witty and sassy as King’s close friend while Gonsalves’ hypochondriac Mann is a joy to watch.

An evening of cracking music with a building emotional payload, Beautiful is, well, beautiful.

Runs until 11 November 2017 | Image: Birgit & Ralf Brinkhoff

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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