Book: Douglas McGrath
Music & Lyrics: Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil & Barry Mann
Director: Marc Bruni
Reviewer: Maggie Constable
Winner of Tony, Olivier and Grammy awards, Beautiful The Carole King Musical wends its way to Milton Keynes Theatre this week, its second stop on this leg of its U.K tour. The London production at the Aldwych Theatre has been playing for over two years to packed audiences.
This is the sort of inspirational story that many people will love, especially since it is true and is associated with such an incredible catalogue of wonderful songs.
For many of us, Carole King has been the backdrop to our lives, directly or indirectly, with iconic 70s hits such as It’s Too Late, You’ve Got A Friend and so many more – her songs have a timeless appeal and in the U.K alone she has had 61 hits which have charted.
King began life as Carol Klein and it was her mother who started teaching her music when she was four years old. By her mid-teens she was writing songs. Her first hit, written with Gerry Goffin when she was just 17 years of age, was the very popular Will You Love Me Tomorrow, which became the first number 1 hit for a black girl group, The Shirelles. In the 1960s she wrote/co-wrote for huge names such as Aretha Franklin and the Drifters among others, still only in her twenties.
King’s is a story of guts and determination and this is very much reflected in the show. We are taken through her struggles to get a recording and to develop her solo career, through her troubled times with her philandering husband, life as a young mother and the friendship with song-writing pair Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, also firm rivals. This is much more than a jukebox style musical, more even than a simple biopic.
We start at King’s Carnegie Hall performance, possibly the pinnacle of her career, then build slowly from her early life to this point. Once the story really picks up the action is very pacy, the dialogue sharp – and there is plenty of humour of the best New York kind.
Relationships are key to this tale, none more so than the one between King and Gerry Goffin, her song writing partner as well as husband. Their chemistry works well, particularly when they are writing songs.
Bronté Barbé brings us the title role and does so with real style and believability, showing us the development of King both as song-writer and as a person. Barbé displays plenty of energy and her powerful voice never wavers. She certainly does justice to the songs.
Kane Oliver Parry plays Gerry Goffin and manages to portray his quasi bi-polar behaviour convincingly, without going over the top. Some lovely moments with King show us the poignant and difficult aspects of their marriage as much as the joy they initially felt.
Amy Ellen Richardson performs the role of sassy and assured song-writer Cynthia Weil with absolute class. She has a real stage presence. The interactions between Weil and her song-writing partner and lover, Barry Mann, seem totally natural and often very amusing.
Matthew Gonslaves portrays Mann and depicts the droll hypochondriac with superb comic timing. Both Parry and Richardson give us strong vocals and harmonise well. Over the course of the musical we truly watch the friendship between the two duos grow, even though they are in fierce competition.
Carol Royle delivers Genie Klein, King’s mother, with a clear understanding of the New York Jewish mother but without overdoing it. She brings out Klein’s humour well but also allows the audience to see how key a support she was in the early stages of King’s career and through her troublesome marriage. Producer Donnie Kirshner is played solidly by Adam Howden in a nicely understated manner.
Music Director, Patrick Hurley, is the conductor of the excellent orchestra which brings out the best in King’s songs and at just the right sound level. Derek McLane’s set, in its multifarious forms, perfectly describes the venues of the era and is very cleverly designed to shift swiftly in various directions across the stage.
The ensemble cast does not put a foot wrong, literally, nor a voice. There are some great portrayals of The Drifters, The Righteous Brothers and Little Eva, to name but a few.
Whether you know Carole King’s songs or not you cannot fail to tap or sing along and many audience members are up on their feet at the finale to the sounds of I Feel The Earth Move, including this reviewer. Not to be missed.
Runs until 24 February 2018 and on tour | Image: Birgit & Ralf Brinkhoff