What makes a great song? The melody? The lyric? The performance? Almost certainly a combination of all three. But I would argue that a great song is not defined by one performance, but allows itself to be reinterpreted in different styles that can speak to different audiences.
Early in Douglas McGrath’s Beautiful- The Carole King Musical we see King audition her songs “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Will you love me tomorrow?” for impresario Donnie Kirshner. They are presented in King’s typical singer-songwriter style, but Kirshner knows instinctively who to offer the songs to, and we then see pitch-perfect performances of the songs by The Shirelles and The Drifters. These early ‘60s vocal groups give King and her writing partner and husband Gerry Goffin their first hits, and are typical of the popular music filling the Billboard Hot 100 at the time. But both songs still work brilliantly in King’s own pared-back performances. And that is central to the success of this piece of theatre, which is so much more than “another Jukebox musical”. The songs, mostly by King and Goffin and their friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil are so well crafted that that they have become popular standards, and can speak to each new generation of performers and audiences.
And the song list in the show is pack full of hits, including “You’ve got a friend”, “Take Good Care of my Baby”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “We gotta get outta this place” to name just a few.
The performances in this touring production are absolutely first rate. Leading the cast as King is Bronté Barbé who is tasked with portraying the singer from a fledgling 16 year old, dipping her toe tentatively in the creative waters, to the mature 29 year old woman stepping confidently onto the stage at Carnegie Hall. Barbé embodies the spirit of King fully, showing us the full range of emotions that she poured into her songs. Her voice echoes King’s slightly thin, natural, untrained sound for much of the show, but she allows us to hear the full range of her power in both “One Fine Day” and especially “(You make me feel like) a Natural Woman”.
The supporting cast is equally fine, led by Grant McConvey (at this performance) as her confused, womanizing-but-ultimately-decent husband Goffin, the spirited Amy Ellen Richardson (Weil) and Matthew Gonsalves as the hypochondriac Mann. All three act and sing up a storm, and there is real friendship and chemistry onstage between both couples.
The supporting cast work tirelessly recreating performances ranging from The Drifter and The Righteous Brothers to The Shirelles and Little Eva that all perfectly capture the sound and mood of the passing years. The design is deceptively simple, but wonderfully effective; Derek McLane’s set moving us effortlessly from small offices and clubs to TV studios and Carnegie Hall, supported by Alejo Vietti’s evocative costumes and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting. The music is excellently played by MD Patrick Hurley and his band. And how great to see that, while not playing live, all the actors were confident when miming their instruments (indeed I suspect several of them are excellent musicians in their own right). It’s a small point, but it can be really distracting in a show with so much onstage miming when the actors don’t know what they are doing.
If you want to catch the tour of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical you will have to be quick. It is in Wolverhampton until Saturday 16 June, then it moves to the Winter Gardens, Blackpool (19-23 June) where the tour ends.
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