Going into ‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical’, I had only the faintest idea of who Carole King was. My mother had enticed me to come and see the musical with her on the grounds that it was a biopic of someone who was in some way related to The Gilmore Girls. As I walked into the theatre, I was increasingly suspicious that this was very much a musical for my mum and not for me – myself and my sister lowered the age average by at least a few decades.
As it turned out, I gleaned from reading the programme, Carole King was a singer/songwriter whose works heralded the evolution of pop in the sixties and seventies. Even someone of my tender years could recognise a few of the song titles she had penned, and as the curtain rose, the appeal of the musical became obvious quite quickly.
Chart-toppers from the sixties are performed by actors mimicking the likes of The Shirelles and The Drifters, familiar melodies and choruses resounding through the theatre, and accompanied by the susurration of not-completely-silent-sing-along on the part of the audience. This famous musical content also zeroes in on the show’s subheading; one can never forget that they’re watching ‘The Carole King Musical’ when famous song is accompanied by incredulous murmurings among the audience: ‘I never knew Carole King wrote this!’
The vocal performances from all are impressive, although some members of the ensemble struggle with the demands of dancing and singing along to energetic songs simultaneously. The performance accolades must, of course, be contributed mostly to Bronté Barbé, who plays Carole. She sings song after song of varying difficulty and barely drops a note. She doesn’t quite sound like her real-life counterpart, but one mustn’t forget that this is Carole King for the stage, and so one must forgive Barbé for trading the sweet and lilting tones of the real King for the more forceful intonation needed to fill a large theatre.
The show makes half-hearted attempts at comedy, and a lot of the humour falls slightly flat (‘Great hair!’ says a guitarist with flowing blond locks, looking at Carole’s new ‘do, which blatantly mirrors his own; ‘It looks just like yours!’ exclaims Carole, rather redundantly, after the audience have already finished laughing). Indeed, the show’s dialogue seems to manifest as space between songs that needed to be filled. ‘Beautiful’ most definitely feels like it was structured around Carole King’s most famous songs and everything that comes in between is incidental.
The first half is kitschy and fairly enjoyable, but it feels like there isn’t a great deal of substance to it. It comes across as an average, coming-of-age story where the girl from the tiny Brooklyn apartment transitions from her mother’s squeaky old piano to Carnegie Hall, with a few famous 60’s hits thrown in. The side characters of Cynthia Weil (Amy Ellen Richardson) and Barry Mann (Matthew Gonsalves) are relatively charming but regrettably forgettable, and Carole herself is endearing but rather subdued, not to mention hair-tearingly submissive to her stereotypical scumbag husband.
The musical really comes into its own in the second half, when the songs became more familiar and the main character finally grows a backbone. Watching Carole finally get rid of her cheating husband palpably fills every member of the audience with a sense of catharsis, and the demographic for the musical – the middle-aged woman – was very much elucidated as we enjoyed seeing Carole actually give herself a second thought, grow out her hair, wear long hippy skirts and perform her own songs to great success- Barbé blasting out ‘Natural Woman’ is a truly empowering sight to see.
We then see Carol soar from heights to heights, producing and singing her own album, moving to LA and topping the charts with her own voice instead of being in the gloom beyond the spotlight, which she has occupied her whole life. Structurally, the show is clichéd to the point of predictability. As the curtain opens on Carole at her piano at Carnegie Hall, it’s not a stretch of the imagination that it will close on the very same scene. Playing very much on this anticipation effect, Barbé belts out the titular ‘Beautiful’ from her immensely successful album ‘Tapestry’, beaming at the audience as she slams down on the piano, and the show ends on a sudden, cinematic ‘cut-to-black’ as she whips her full and flowing head of signature blonde hair over her piano. The whole number is really quite moving, and a combination of the rapid (but very welcome) character development of the once meek protagonist and the songs that punctuated their university years had the audience on its feet.
Flawed – yes; clunky in parts – yes. But the efforts of the team behind ‘Beautiful’ were enough that the show clicked with the younger members of its audience so that they immediately went and downloaded ‘Tapestry’ on Spotify. Well, that’s what I did anyway.
‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical’ is showing in various locations around the UK before heading to the USA.