This review was first written for the British Theatre Guide
It may be impossible to condense a lifetime of legendary achievement into two-and-a-half hours of stage entertainment, but Beautiful - The Carole King Musical certainly showcases the extraordinary talent of this incomparable singer-songwriter. Having opened on Broadway in 2013 and made an award-winning transfer to London, it now stops off in Bristol as part of a UK and Ireland tour.
Beginning with King’s 1971 appearance in Carnegie Hall following the phenomenal success of her solo album Tapestry, the story then rewinds to her early days in Brooklyn, writing music in her bedroom after school.
More than simply a jukebox musical packed full of hits, this is a biography of love and friendship, too. On tour, King is played by Bronté Barbé, who captures all her initial awkwardness and vulnerability, selling her first songs and marrying her writing partner Gerry Goffin (Kane Oliver Parry) while still in her teens.
Her geekiness contrasts with the self-assurance of fellow songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (a compelling Amy Ellen Richardson and Matthew Gonsalves) who quickly become the couple’s firm friends and professional rivals in the competitive business of creating US number one hit singles for other artists - from the Shirelles to the Drifters to Little Eva and the Righteous Brothers.
The cast is well served by Derek McLane’s slick scenic design and there’s fine work here from the energetic ensemble, as the song factory on 1650 Broadway transforms into a stage for glitzy 'sixties classics from both song-writing teams; showstoppers like “Up On The Roof”, “The Locomotion” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” are performed with authentic verve and style.
Douglas McGrath’s storyline punctuates the flow of hits and has a lightness of tone throughout, delivered by the cast with polished comic timing. However, as personal problems emerge for Goffin and King, the darkening mood seems too sanitised, with the inevitable tension and heart-wrenching messiness of break-up lacking in emotional intensity. Here, the songs come to the rescue, with King wistfully echoing the words of “One Fine Day” and reprising “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” to illustrate the depth of her pain.
There are strong performances, but as King becomes successful in singing her own material as well as writing it, Barbé’s portrayal - though always endearing - threatens to veer into impersonation and she struggles on occasion to find the range of her voice without losing its tone.
Yet, under the assured musical direction of Patrick Hurley, the songs just keep on coming. From “It Might As Well Rain Until September” to “You’ve Got A Friend”, it’s impossible not to bask in nostalgia for these superb hits of the 'sixties and 'seventies, or to marvel at the spectacular scale and influence of Carole King’s work.
If you’re lucky enough to have seen her perform live then there may be no real substitute but, by the end of the show, much of the audience is up on its feet and dancing to the sheer vitality of her songbook.
Reviewed on 4 April 2018 as part of a UK tour. Image: Contributed.