FamilyMusicalReviewSouth West

Beautiful – The Carole King Musical – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Book: Douglas McGrath

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

Director: Marc Bruni

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Tapestry is no ordinary record. A chronicle of heartbreak and hope, even forty years after its release in 1971, it continues to speak to men and women about the nature of love.

Carole King’s remarkable album is just part of the story in this hit musical. Beautiful charts King’s development as a songwriter, from her writing partnership with Gerry Goffin to the emergence of her solo sound in the 1970’s. The musical devotes a lot of time to King’s early career, and with good reason. It is no exaggeration to say that Goffin and King helped to shape the sound of pop music, writing hits for stars such as The Shirelles, The Righteous Brothers and Dusty Springfield.

But what Beautiful does, and with great skill, is to explore the relationships around Goffin and King that spurred them to write bigger and better songs. Their friendship with fellow songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil not only made for a great support network, it created a much-needed element of competition. Both teams became better artists for having known each other.

While jukebox musicals have grown in popularity, not all of them use their material wisely. Beautiful proves itself a cut above by its ability to transition into songs with real sophistication. The musical benefits from a back catalogue that is almost an embarrassment of riches, featuring classics such as Up on the Roof, On Broadway and Some Kind of Wonderful. Beautiful raises its game with an excellent supporting cast, and the songs are performed with real care and attention to detail. This is not only music that matters to the audience, the cast treat the songs with respect. As a result, the music sounds like it’s just been written. It is a simple touch, but it works brilliantly.

As Carole King, Bronte Barbe perfectly captures the intimacy of the singer’s voice. This is not an impersonation of King, but rather an interpretation. It takes a brave – and forward-thinking – production to know the difference. Barbe’s performance is sensitive and beautifully balanced; King is eminently likable, but at the heart of her character is a strong sense of her own worth. It reminds us of why King is still a formidable presence in the music world today.

It’s not hard to see why Beautiful has made such an impact. Winning two Tony Awards and two Olivier Awards, it does everything you would expect a jukebox musical would do, but with the volume turned way up. The sets – stylish, geometric – are brighter; the sound – effervescent and joyous – is bolder. Every aspect of this musical has been polished to a shine, but what is remarkable is how the narrative retains an emotional resonance. Yes, the one-liners are there, but you never forget that you are watching biography, not fiction. It’s a production with real integrity, entirely fitting for an artist like King. Beautiful resets the standard for the jukebox musical, and it’s a bar few are going to be able to reach.

Runs until Saturday 23 September | Image: Birgit & Ralf Brinkhoff

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