Beautiful begins in 1971, when Carole King played the Carnegie Hall following the huge success of her seminal album ‘Tapestry’. Carole King (Bronté Barbé) sits at her piano centre stage bemused by the success she has achieved given her unassuming beginnings. Then with a seamless swish of Derek McLane’s multi-functional set the audience are transported back to 1960s Manhattan, and the start of King’s journey to become the most successful female songwriter of the latter half of the twentieth century.
This bio-jukebox musical then follows King as she begins her tenure at the Brill Building. The Brill Building is synonymous with the sounds of the fifties and sixties. King, with her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin, worked for Aldon Music, who’s aim was to take the professional, conveyor-belt approach to songwriting, perfected by Tin Pan Alley, and apply it to rock'n'roll. There was a buzz to the building, which the vibrant company capture in ‘1650 Broadway Medley’ giving a sense of the creative hub King is about to engage with. This setting allows for the writers to play with the hits the audience know and love (and there are a lot of them featured in this show) as we watch the writers creating them. There is a great moment when Goffin and King’s babysitter Little Eva (you can guess where this is going) sight-reads the first draft of ‘The Locomotion’, then she transforms with a spin into a sparkly dress and performs the well-known version of the song.
Douglas McGrath’s script zips through King’s life, jumping months and years (which we follow through the age of King’s daughters). The story is well executed, even if you question whether things always flowed as smoothly as McLane’s set. There is a warmth and humour to the piece throughout that is ably conveyed by the company. Matthew Gonsalves and Amy Ellen Richardson are excellent as the story’s comedic second couple, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, competing with King and Goffin for the coveted Billboard 100 top spot. The songs are excellent, with slick arrangements from Steve Sidwell. The orchestra provide ample support under the guidance of Patrick Hurley. It is a shame that due to touring budget constraints, and pit sizes, the orchestra are limited in number. This is most evident when King talks about arranging strings for ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ and instead of soaring strings in the accompaniment we hear a synthesised sound.
Barbé is an engaging performer capturing the essence of King, her awkwardness and vulnerability. The audience are behind her every step of the way, when she finally leaves Goffin they erupt into spontaneous applause. Barbé works hard to emulate King’s distinctive vocal sound, and at times the sound is a little forced. She is not helped by the sound at the Winter Gardens which is rather uneven. On the whole though this is an enjoyable production which explores the early life of a fascinating and prolific songwriter.
Reviewer: Clare Chandler
Reviewed: 19th June 2018
North West End Rating: ★★★