Beautiful – The Carole King Musical continues at the Aldwych Theatre, London, currently booking until 13 June.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
There are jukebox musicals, and then there are jukebox musicals. Some, like Mamma Mia!, wrap up songs from a common source with a story that, while it may not hold up on its own, provides a solid enough framework upon which to enjoy an artist’s back catalogue. There are others, like Jersey Boys, which seek to tell the story of an artist or artists, punctuating the story with emulations of the performances of the time.
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical attempts to straddle both approaches, celebrating the life and creative output of Carole King from selling her first song at the age of 16 (‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’) up to her solo performance success that culminated in a solo show at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1971.
But right away, it becomes clear that calling this show ‘The Carole King Musical’ is misrepresenting things somewhat. While a prolific composer of pop tunes, most of King’s biggest hits were created in tandem with her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin, played with mercurial charm by Alan Morrissey.
As the pair rack up hit after hit, we also track the friendship and affectionate rivalry with another successful songwriting duo, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, composers of standards such as ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and ‘On Broadway’. So while it is King’s name on the marquee, this celebration of 1960s pop is very much a four-hander, albeit a story told from the viewpoint of the quartet’s most interesting character.
The musical is most comfortable when cutting between the two pairs’ office and romantic lives and the performances of their compositions by groups from The Shirelles to The Drifters, The Righteous Brothers and Little Eva. Many of these segments verge on self-parody, overplaying the era’s stylised choreography in ways that highlight how King and Goffin’s romanticism could often get lost under the industry’s demands for sellable, commercial product. On more than one occasion, King starts off performing a gutsy, folksy, country-inspired interpretation of one of her songs, before it gives way to the more familiar, more up-tempo, more cheesy and ultimately less inspirational version that the public knows.
As Carole King, Katie Brayben is musically and characterfully the justified mainstay of this show. In her hands, King’s vocal stylings – the trilling cadences and her ability to express melancholy from within the brightest melody – seem effortless. She and Morrissey possess the ready chemistry that befits a couple who clearly work well together, even as Goffin falls prey to depression and seeks escape. As their friendly rivals Mann and Weil, Ian McIntosh and Lorna Weil bring a warmth to characters that could so easily have been ciphers.
Douglas McGrath’s book frames the quartet’s ups and downs with a gently comedic style in Act I, easily providing warm, rounded characters with dialogue spattered with easy comedy, and always ready to tip a subtle wink to the audience at the absurdity of presenting so many pop songs in quick succession. The set-up in which King and Goffin quibble about who should sing their dance number ‘Locomotion’ before asking their babysitter, Little Eva, takes the ‘quick set-up before launching into a tribute number’ to its absurd extreme in its own, enjoyable manner.
It is as Act II unfolds, and King’s marriage to Goffin begins to fall apart in the shadow of his affairs and battles with depression, that McGrath’s scripting really struggles. What should be Brayben’s greatest monologue, as she discovers her husband in another woman’s arms and finally stands up for herself, comes across more as a bout of petulant foot-stamping, no matter how hard Brayben works to imbue the moment with true anger and sorrow.
One can only be reminded of moments in the opening of Act I where King, finding herself truly able at writing music, struggles with matching the melodies to meaningful words. Being charitable, one could imagine that her inability to verbalise her feelings were a reflection of that trait, were it not one shared by all characters as soon as the story seeks to travel into serious emotional areas.
But anyone attending Beautiful is coming for the songs, and while there are not so many numbers in Act II, they are pulled from arguably the most powerful era in King’s songwriting career, as she moved to Los Angeles and recorded her own album, Tapestry. ‘It’s Too Late’, ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ and ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ provide a more independent, confident tone on which to draw the musical to a close.
Along with the aforementioned Jersey Boys (which Beautiful most resembles) and Memphis, which uses original songs to tell the story of how the commercial pop era in which King and Goffin found their first success was born from underground R&B clubs, the West End now has three narrative shows based on the history of pop music. Whether Theatreland can maintain all three at once remains to be seen – but this new addition certainly holds its own, and despite its book flaws Marc Bruni’s production provides an evening of unalloyed musical pleasure.
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Carole King joins Beautiful cast for opening night – News