Touring – reviewed at the New Theatre, Oxford
Guest reviewer: Nick Fisher
Carole King rightly occupies a place in the pantheon of great American songwriters and this lively production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a fitting tribute to her musical legacy.
The performance begins with King, propelled to stardom by her solo album ‘Tapestry’, sitting at the piano at Carnegie Hall. All too quickly, we are taken back to her teenage years, living with her mother in a Manhattan apartment, striving to become a songwriter. She is revealed as a slightly awkward yet determined teenager who meets her future writing partner and husband, Gerry Goffin, when studying education at college. After she becomes pregnant, the pair marries and embarks on their career as hit-makers for Don Kirshner known as the ‘man with the golden ear’ who made stars of King, Neil Diamond and Neil Sedaka amongst others.
We are taken at a rapid clip through some classics including, ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’ originally performed by the Drifters, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ by the Shirelles and ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ by Barry Mann and the Righteous Brothers. The show portrays vividly the look and feel of Kirshner’s songwriting factory, a rabbit warren of cubicles inhabited by young writers, desperate to write hits for the Billboard 100.
At the factory, the pair meet friends and competitors, lyricist Cynthia Weil and composer Barry Mann. The witty and smart Weil and the comic, charming Mann, provide a light-hearted secondary duo who are destined to live happily ever after. Indeed, the pair has been married since 1961 which is in sharp contrast to King and Goffin who both remarried three times following their divorce. In fact, it is during this intensely productive period at the factory when the first cracks appear in their relationship. Goffin’s desire to stay out every night to immerse himself in the music scene conflicts with King’s desire for domesticity coupled with an intense desire to make it as a songwriter.
In Act 2, we are taken, albeit it at a slightly slower pace, from 1962, with ‘Chains’ initially released by the Cookies and in 1963, covered by the Beatles. We are then treated to some classics, ‘Walking in the Rain’, and ‘It’s Too Late’, culminating in a wonderful rendition of ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman’ originally recorded one year before her divorce from Goffin in 1968. The final scene takes us back to the Carnegie Hall show in 1971, the year when King released her seminal solo album, Tapestry, one of the best-selling albums of all time. It is at this point when Goffin makes a final appearance. The pair had lost contact since King’s move to Los Angeles in 1968 and Goffin takes the opportunity to express his appreciation of how much she had achieved in her career. It doesn’t matter if this actually happened, it portrays a deep love and respect for the woman and the writer. In any case, in a statement following his death in 2014, King described Goffin as her ‘first love’ and how he had a ‘profound impact’ on her life.
Overall, this is a rip-roaring musical roller coaster ride. The quality of the music, led by Musical Director Patrick Hurley, really cannot be faulted, from the tight harmonies and wonderful choreography in Act 1 to the evocative songs in Act 2. This is not a history lesson in any sense even though this is a period rich in social and political change including the racial integration of the University of Alabama in 1963 and the height of the Vietnam War in the early 70s. Was King affected by these momentous events and did it affect her music? Almost certainly, but at the end of the day it was Goffin’s lyrics which serve as a narrative for the time.
This brings us to the performances. Bronté Barbé is superb as Carole King. Her voice is captivating and her performance of Natural Woman was incredibly moving and captured perfectly a tumultuous stage in King’s marriage to Goffin. Playing Goffin was Kane Oliver Parry who had a palpable chemistry with Barbé. Nevertheless, his Brooklyn accent was unconvincing and needs more work.
Almost eclipsing Barbé was Amy Ellen Richardson as Cynthia Weil. She brought maturity and depth to the role including stand-out performances in ‘Walking in the Rain’ and ‘He’s sure the Boy I Love’. Her partner, Barry Mann was sensitively played by Matthew Gonsalves and he introduced some moments of real humour.
Carole King will always be a shining star of world music. She has written or co-written over 400 songs recorded by artists such as Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, Diana Ross and the Beatles. She has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, recorded 25 solo albums, the second of which, ‘Tapestry’ remained at the top of the Billboard 100 for a record-breaking 15 weeks. Come to this performance, stick some dimes into the jukebox and join the baby boomers dancing in the aisles in celebration of a cultural icon.