As a kid, I was a massive, and I mean MASSIVE, fan of The Monkees, and the first time I would have tumbled across the name of Carole King – in collaboration with Gerry Goffin – would have been in the writing credits of the Monkees’ albums. I’m pretty sure that I had read somewhere that Goffin was sniffy about writing for the Prefab Four – which fact is made very clear in Beautiful, The Carole King Musical, currently on a considerable UK tour. Goffin and King may well have first come together as teenage sweethearts with one combined aim in mind, to write songs together whilst being in love – although you’re in no doubt that he only asked her to marry him because she was pregnant. But as the years go on, it becomes clear that King was the practical workhorse of the pair, whereas Goffin was the more artistic/ethereal/poetic contributor.
Their most famous song for the Monkees, Pleasant Valley Sunday, is a perfect example of the difference between the two; her dream was to move to the beautiful suburbs, whereas his lyrics for PVS show how despicable and twisted he found that whole suburban dream to be. Although together they were able to create magic for other people, as a couple they were wholly unsuitable. She’s portrayed as stay-at-home, mousey, dowdy almost, whereas he’s a bit of a party animal, suggesting strip poker amongst their friends, and seeing other women behind her back. She’s concerned with bringing home the bacon and looking after baby Louise, whereas he’s not finishing his lyrics and fancies dabbling in LSD.
Forgive me for coming at this review from an odd angle, gentle reader, but I wanted to highlight that Beautiful is not so much The Carole King Musical as The Goffin/King Songbook. The show charts their story together, from their first meeting introduced by a school pal, through great financial (and artistic) success, to their marriage breakdown, his philandering, his mental health breakdown (through drugs) and her going solo with the cathartic Tapestry album, culminating in a concert at Carnegie Hall in June 1971. Carole King’s career, however, has continued to span the decades and indeed, she’s still going strong today. And Gerry Goffin continued to chart his own career with other collaborators until his career started to peter out in the 1990s.
By concentrating on those early golden years, this gives the show the opportunity to showcase all their most famous and best-loved songs, performed by the stars of the age; and that, alone, is enough to provide two-and-a-half hours of top quality entertainment and musical nostalgia. Where this show is really strong is in presenting a selection of fantastic songs, played by a superb (unseen) band, sung by a talented cast, delightfully choreographed by Josh Prince to reflect those incredibly dated but wonderful routines by the Drifters or the Shirelles, and with an incredibly successful combined design by Derek McLane (scenery) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting).
However, as a narrative, I found the show strangely pedestrian. Whilst it does tell its story clearly, it feels very stop-start in its style. I’m no expert on Juke Box Musicals – I’ve not seen most of the famous ones – but let’s consider a few examples. Mamma Mia takes Abba’s songs and creates a brand-new story using the songs organically to move the story along – but it’s a story that has nothing to do with Abba themselves. Possibly my favourite of the genre, Sunny Afternoon, tells the story of the Kinks’ rise to fame, using their songs as a standard musical would do, commenting on their situation and moving the plot forward. Cilla the Musical told the story of the early career of Cilla Black using her songs as landmark points along the way, including showing how she recorded them. In all of these shows the songs progress the plot, and you get a sense of development.
However, in Beautiful, you have a pair of rival songwriters (Goffin and King v. Mann and Weil) where you watch one couple say we’re gonna write a song, then they write a song, then have it performed and see how successful it was, followed by the other couple writing a song, having it performed and seeing how successful it was, then back to Couple #1, then Couple #2, etc, etc and etc. Whilst it might well be an accurate presentation of what happened, that structure doesn’t make for what I would term a good musical. Whilst every scene (particularly in the first Act) ends with a great song, it feels repetitive and formulaic. Rather like how Gerry Goffin feels about Janelle Woods’ performance of One Fine Day, this structure holds back from really giving the audience a 100% good time.
Here’s an example of how the show sacrifices a potentially dramatic moment simply to provide a good musical performance. When Carole King has moved to LA and is recording with her new producer Lou Adler, he wants her to sing You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman on the new album. She tells him she just can’t – it was a song she and Gerry wrote together and the memories and emotions are simply too painful for her. But he convinces her to give it a try and she agrees. Then Carole sings it perfectly and it’s a great performance – and there’s no sign that it was in any way a problem for Carole to do it. There’s no moment when she’s struggled through the tears, or when she’s overcome the lump in her throat. It’s just sing a song and then move on. A missed opportunity, I felt, and it made something of a mockery of the scene that went before.
There’s plenty of excellent performances on offer; for our performance Carole King was played by the alternate, Vicki Manser, and she has a great voice and totally looks the part. Adam Gillian played Gerry Goffin with a great mix of fresh-faced appeal and untrustworthy roué – again singing the songs superbly. Laura Baldwin and Cameron Sharp make a terrific couple as the feisty Cynthia Weil and the workaday Barry Mann. Susie Fenwick gets most of the laughs as Carole’s hypocritical mother and Oliver Boot is a firm but fair Don Kirshner. The ensemble give terrific support, but you have to single out (or should that be group out) Damien Winchester, Ronald Brian, Samuel Nicholas and Toyan Thomas-Browne as the Drifters, and Leah St Luce, Katrina May, Louise Francis and Mica Townsend as the Shirelles, both groups recreating that superb early 60s feel of elegance, glamour and over-the-top choreography.
After Northampton, the extensive tour continues to Eastbourne, Woking, Bristol, Bradford, Cardiff, Sunderland, Wimbledon, Milton Keynes, Llandudno, Canterbury, Southend, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Glasgow, Nottingham, Manchester, Oxford, Cheltenham, Birmingham, Southampton, Dartford, Dublin, Newcastle and ending up in Leeds at the end of August. If you love these old 60s songs, you’re guaranteed a very enjoyable night out – and it’s a feast for the eyes and the ears, if not exactly a challenge for the brain!
Production photos by various photographers from various productions