Grand Opera House, Belfast – until 28 October 2017
Guest reviewer: Damien Murray
The major appeal of this extremely popular biographical musical is that its subject, Carole King, really is a cross-generational artist, performer, singer, songwriter. Her eventful – but not always successful or happy – life provided a human story that connects to many of its audience every bit as much as her commercial and popular songs.
As a jukebox musical, this show can’t fail to impress with a score composed of classic hit after classic hit from all periods of King’s phenomenal career as both a writer/co-writer and, eventually, as a performer.
While the bulk of the hits are from her younger days, this show is a particular crowd-pleaser for anyone born in the late 40s and early 60s, but – so commercial are the songs – it also manages to successfully cross the generations to engage even with the youth of today who may be hearing them for the first time.
However, there is a bit more depth to this musical than just the songs, as King’s story is that of a young and ambitious teenage girl, who never set out to be a singer and who was as surprised as everyone else by her own success.
According to music impresario, Donnie Kirshner – perfectly played by Adam Howden as a no-nonsense boss who knew the business and who demanded results– the key to her success as a writer was that she was a teen who wrote songs for teens and she was a girl who wrote songs for girls… and it was teen girls who were buying most records at that time.
Like a typical Brooklyn teen with no fear, King – played so well by understudy, Leigh Lothian, in the absence of Bronté Barbé (due to a family bereavement) – jumped head first into the competitive music game as a staff writer for Kirshner’s songwriting business, 1650 Broadway, where she met her perfect husband and co-writer, Gerry Goffin, plus life-long friends and fellow song-writing team, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, with each providing friendly rivalry measured in ‘hit’ scoring over one another. This, of course, was a great excuse to also feature many of this duo’s hit successes, too, including You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, Walking In The Rain and We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place.
In the lead role, Leigh Lothian, captured all of King’s emotions, moods, weaknesses and strengths, from being an ambitious and fearless teen, to coping with a teenage pregnancy, an unfaithful husband, her husband’s nervous breakdown and the eventual breakdown of her marriage, displaying strength, patience, forgiveness and loss of confidence before re-inventing herself as one of the world’s most successful female singers.
Kane Oliver Parry, as Gerry Goffin, didn’t quite convince me that he was so troubled by his domestic and work pressures that they drove him into the arms of other women, but he displayed the kind of charm that the character must have had to keep King by his side for so long after his first affair and to be able to initiate so many affairs in the first place. I loved the chemistry between Amy Ellen Richardson’s pushy, confident and patient Cynthia Weil and Matthew Gonsalves’ Barry Mann; the impatient and always ailing hypochondriac.
This was a well-dressed production with authentic fashions of the day stretching right down to the girls sporting ‘Alice Bands’ on their heads, while the well-used, dual-level set helped to keep the pace fast with slick and quick scene changes.
The performance of the actual songs throws up some interesting observations – firstly, some are just parts of songs, and, due to the nature of the story about songwriters (as opposed to performers), some are raw or early rough examples of the finished and more polished hits that we have grown up to love.
So, although you will enjoy the story, don’t expect to hear the songs as you would know them from the records as they are often performed ‘in context’ and do not always sound like the hits – I feel if you are pre-warned about this, then you won’t be disappointed!
However, one small criticism/observation about this show was the overly exaggerated choreographic moves that could best be described as ‘dodgy dancing’ by ‘the Drifters’ These were greeted with laughter leaving me confused as to whether this was a comical send-up of the ‘dancing’ of the male vocal groups of the era or simply questionable choreography that didn’t get the desired result.
It was genius to stage a bio musical of this chart-topping music legend who penned material for the likes of Aretha Franklin, The Monkees, The Drifters and The Shirelles as this totally hit-filled show features many of those songs, including Take Good Care Of My Baby, You’ve Got A Friend, So Far Away, It Might As Well Rain Until September, Up On The Roof and The Locomotion with ‘character’ performances by The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva, The Righteous Brothers and even a Neil Sedaka cameo appearance.
It is true, Carole King wrote songs that girls, and women, can relate to and the final two in this show – (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and Beautiful – proved to be popular and inspirational anthems for the mostly female audience.