Beautiful – The Carole King Musical
Book by Douglas McGrath, words and music by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
Theatre Royal Bath, Mayflower Theatre and Curve Theatre
Palace Theatre, Manchester
Before creating Tapestry, the album which set the formula for the sensitive singer-songwriter genre, Carole King and then husband Gerry Goffin worked in The Brill Building writing songs for other artists to record. With Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, director Nikolai Foster sets out to capture the creative and chaotic environment of such a workplace.
Despite her musical talent, teenager Carole King (Molly-Grace Cutler) is insecure about, well everything really including her inability to write lyrics, reluctance to sing in public and perceived lack of sexual allure. She forms a professional relationship with college bad boy and frustrated playwright Gerry Goffin (Tom Milner) which soon turns personal. They build a friendly rivalry with fellow songwriters Cynthia Weil (Seren Sandham-Davies) and Barry Mann (Jos Slovick). But Goffin has mental health issues and a roving eye, giving King the unwanted inspiration to write and sing an iconic album on her own.
The ramshackle mood of the show takes a while to settle down. The opening, with the cast wandering around the stage chatting, lasts so long the let’s-do-the-show-right-here vibe starts to drag and there is an overuse of dry ice wafting around. The cast perform as musicians as well as singers so there are scenes with people chatting while holding an instrument. As Molly-Grace Cutler plays an upright piano for most of the show, she stands to enable the audience to see her face, thereby adopting a confrontational, legs-apart stance more suitable for, say, Tori Amos than a sensitive singer-songwriter.
Frankie Bradshaw’s set is assembled as the show progresses. The bits and pieces of walls, neon strips of lighting, instruments that open the show are gradually put together into a recording studio.
With some musical biographies, there is a sense of the authors straining to find interesting facts to insert in-between the jukebox songs. With Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, the reverse may be the case and author Douglas McGrath faces a glut of too good to be true facts. King really was Neil Sedaka’s high school girlfriend and the inspiration for "Oh! Carol" and she did pass "The Loco-Motion" onto her babysitter who recorded it under the name Little Eva.
Director Foster sets the mood of a sitcom. Molly-Grace Cutler’s self-deprecating and slightly frumpy King is offset by Seren Sandham-Davies’s confident and glamourous Cynthia Weil. Jos Slovick’s comically exaggerated hypochondriac Barry Mann balances against Tom Milner’s tortured Gerry Goffin. The central irony—Goffin is tormented by his search to discover the next big thing in music and King just goes ahead and creates it—is acknowledged in the rueful final meeting between the lovers.
The pacing is rapid, the songs in a medley used to establish the time and place of the musical rush past in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it manner. For a jukebox musical, Beautiful is surprisingly irreverent—the original versions of the songs are not simply reproduced. The gleeful silliness of "The Loco-Motion" is pushed to the maximum with Amena El-Kindy rollerskating around the stage. The darker side of "On Broadway" comes out in a fractured rapid version while a distorted "Pleasant Valley Sunday" reflects Goffin’s contempt for convention and his deteriorating mental state.
Far from an easy listening experience, Beautiful – The Carole King Musical is a challenging and refreshing approach to telling the story of a musical legend.
Reviewer: David Cunningham