Book: Douglas McGrath
Music and Lyrics: Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
Director: Nikolai Foster
Juke-box musicals. Some of them are poor, some are good – and then there’s Beautiful, which surely rates as one of the best.
Once past the prologue, we find ourselves in Brooklyn where a teenage Carole Klein has dreams of being a songwriter, despite the reluctance of her mother who wants Carole to be a teacher. She sold her first hit song Will You Love Me Tomorrow at the age of seventeen and just a few years later she was living in, she felt, perfect circumstances. She had a family and a songwriting career with her husband, writing hits for some of the biggest names in music at the time. When her personal life starts to crumble she finds her music speaking more from the heart, and her smash hit album Tapestry is born.
Molly-Grace Cutler is in good voice as Carole King, developing her technique and delivery from something slightly faltering initially to the more self-assured performances later in her career. This is an arc that is matched by her characterisation, with clear differences between the insecure but determined teenager and the later King, more at ease with herself though seemingly never really comfortable performing in front of large audiences. This is a challenging role and Cutler is outstanding in her performance. Tom Miner does a good job too as Gerry Goffin, feeling that he has missed out on life and struggling to cope with the changing times, with his mental health suffering as a result. Milner has a good voice which he showcases well with his vocal contributions.
There’s a focus too on the friendly rivalry between King and Goffin, and the songwriters in the next cubicle, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, providing a touch of lightness in contrast to the serious King and her turbulent relationship. Seren Sandham-Davies sparkles as Cynthia Weil with a bubbly personality and infectious smile that lights up the stage, as well as showcasing her vocal talent. Jos Slovick adds a touch of dry humour to his role as a hypochondriac Barry Mann.
There’s good support from an ensemble cast of actor-musicians with great choreography by Leah Hill. Frankie Bradshaw’s staging is deceptively simple, creating a concert hall, recording studios and cosy corners on an apartment all through the process of moving a few screens, instruments and pieces of furniture around so the pace never slackens.
The storyline inevitably skips over big chunks of Carole King’s life and career – when someone has a career like hers, you’d have to be at the theatre all night to fit it all in – but as a way of showcasing her prolific talent and turbulent personal life while providing some cracking entertainment it certainly hits the spot. Portrayed as a series of vignettes Douglas McGrath’s book manages to avoid feeling too episodic, nor is it simply a vehicle to showcase the music – music that sits there with the cast as one of the stars. Everyone who lived through the 1960s and 70s will know these songs, and probably know them well, and Beautiful uses the music well in picking out appropriate songs for the moment. You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman, You’ve Got a Friend, So Far Away, It Might as Well Rain Until September, Will You Love Me Tomorrow? and many more make an appearance, and all feel right.
Between them, King, Goffin, Weil and Mann created the soundtrack for a generation and hearing these songs performed again in a theatrical context is a treat. Highly recommended.
Runs until 12 March 2022 and touring