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Oh Carole! So Beautiful!
David Cradduck feels the earth move under his feet…
Third venue on a 30+ stop UK tour, the new ‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical’ arrives in Southampton. The clue is very much in the title: beautiful it certainly is, colourful, well crafted, acted, sung and presented; Carole King is obviously the star of the show, or rather an uncanny resemblance by Bronté Barbé is of the now 75-year-old; and it is most definitely a musical. The storyline, which is basically a biography of King’s career, is upstaged, and rightly so, by the music that made her famous.
Along with most of the silver haired audience at last night’s opening performance, I still own at least one copy of multi award winning ‘Tapestry’, King’s signature album that has sold over 25 million copies since it was released in 1971.
But, as is revealed in the chronologically linear timeline that tells the story in one long flashback, Carole King’s early years were not as a singer or performer herself but as a songwriter and one half of the partnership that created hits for others to perform, such as ‘The Locomotion’ and ‘Up On The Roof’. Her teenage romance with Gerry Goffin resulted in not only fifty-odd top 40 hits but a whirlwind romance, two children and a troubled marriage which ended after ten years of Goffin’s infidelity, breakdowns and (unmentioned in the show except in passing) drug problems.
Those who like an element of drama in their musicals will be left a little disappointed. The story, which has its emotional ups and downs, is not a dramatic one but the fascinating tale of a 16 year old girl who has musical talent and ambitions, who works hard at her songwriting career and her marriage in tandem and who comes to the realisation, once that marriage is well and truly over, that she has the voice she has been searching for to do her later songs justice. They are her songs, for her, and about her and she is best placed to perform them.
A witty and lively script and a traditional, deceptively simple way of presenting an almost musical documentary, results in some very watchable stagecraft. The central five characters – King, Goffin (an instantly plausible and endearing performance by Kane Oliver Parry), friends and writing rivals Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil – they penned ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ and many others – and Donnie Kirshner, their manager/agent/publisher, act out the storyline and dialogue. Performers they wrote for are faithfully reproduced on stage by the remaining cast: ‘performances’ by The Drifters, Little Eva and The Righteous Brothers are colourful, heavily choreographed and nearly always played in full. “What can you say in three minutes?”. A lot it would seem.
Fascinating also is the association and/or collaboration that King had with artists like Bobby Vee, The Monkees, The Shirelles, Aretha Franklin, even The Beatles (they covered ‘Chains’ on ‘Please Please Me’), Neil Sedaka, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and later, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. Her achievements are generally understated and Beautiful fills that gap perfectly whilst paying genuine tribute to an exceptional talent.
Talking of talent, miming the playing of instruments on stage is a real craft in its own right. Although the vocals are all live, and mostly sound remarkably like the real thing, the music is played by live musicians led by musical director Patrick Hurley from the orchestra pit whilst the actors mime on stage. Barbé’s staged piano playing in particular looks so authentic it is difficult at times to accept that it is not. Although it may not past close scrutiny by professional musicians it looks, sounds and feels like instruments are being played live and at times the whole show takes on the feeling of a very elaborate tribute concert.
Derek McLane’s original set design and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting combine to provide various plausible 60s settings. Props, flat and furniture fly or slide effortlessly in from both sides and upstage to transform the stage from homes to nightclubs, offices, street scenes, finally to Carnegie Hall complete with concert grand piano centre stage. Period hairstyles and costumes are amusingly convincing and the whole show is played straight – there is no over-the-top additional glitz or glamour required. Indeed, King’s early fashion sense is depicted as particularly dowdy.
Broadway was the first to see this show only three years ago, followed a year later by London’s West End. Now the tour has hit the road and won’t finish this run until 2018 by which time thousands more will have seen it.
‘Beautifu’l is not the big, sparkly showstopper that many musicals become; it is an honest, informative and touching tribute to the legend that is Carole King and the amazing music she made and continues to make.
Runs at The Mayflower until Saturday 30th www.mayflower.org.uk or call the box office on 02380 711811, before heading off to Norwich and beyond. More info on the tour at beautifulmusical.co.uk/tour