Beautiful – The Carole King Musical*** (Aldwych Theatre)

Posted: February 24, 2015 in Theatre

beautiful

Here we go again! With more recycled pop songs and what is, in essence, the same plot as countless previous showbiz bios, the tired old “juke box musical” formula is back. Yet, much as I rant on about cheap and lazy theatre, insisting that anyone wanting to listen to pop classics would do better downloading Greatest Hits albums or going to see tribute artists, even I sometimes have to succumb. The publicity for shows like Jersey Boys, Sunny Afternoon and this often describes them as “the soundtrack for a generation” and, as the generation of all three is my own, I am as inclined as anyone else to sit tearfully wallowing in nostalgia. That said, surely we are entitled to look for more in terms of original creativity from a Broadway/West End musical than is offered here. The show tells the story of Carole Klein, a talented teenage songwriter in 1950s New York, who changes her name to King and, to prove a point to her mother, takes a song to top music publisher Donnie Kirshner. When that song is It Might as Well Rain Until September, it is hard to understand why she then decides that she needs to work with a lyricist, but she teams up with Gerry Goffin, becomes pregnant by and marries him and, in the wake of a painful separation, goes on to write and perform one of the greatest albums of the 1970s. Playing King, Katie Brayben faces a challenge, because not only is the role huge, but, as written, the character is completely uninteresting – a boring, motherly, stay-at-home stick in the mud; it is to Brayben’s credit that she makes King’s sheer ordinariness somehow endearing. However, Alan Morrissey struggles to convince as Goffin, a restless wannabe playwright who suffers from bouts of severe depression. The introduction of friendly rivals – the chic, confident Cynthia Weil (Lorna Ward) and the hypochondriac Barry Mann (Ian McIntosh) – at least brings some sparkle to the spoken scenes and it also allows the producers to raid another catalogue of classic songs (rather greedy in view of the Goffin/King treasures already at their disposal). Glynis Barber as King’s mother and Gary Trainor as Kirshner contribute well-judged comic cameos. Director Marc Bruni gives us a big production, much bigger than it really needs to be; apart from routines by groups such as The Drifters and The Shirelles, there is little choreography and little spectacle, making the show not much more than a small human drama with songs thrown in. Autobiographical material from Tapestry comes late on, but, otherwise, the lyrics rarely relate to the drama and add little insight to Douglas McGrath’s rather colourless and sometimes clunky book. However, it is the songs, whether Goffin/King or Mann/Weil, that everyone comes to hear and, time and again, they explode like party poppers to bring the show to life. With their perky or lilting melodies and poignant or optimistic lyrics, these compositions are, still today, some kind of wonderful.

Performance date: 19 February 2015

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