Manchester Theatre Awards

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Beautiful –The Carole King Musical

Book by Douglas McGrath Music / Lyrics: Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann and  Cynthia Weil
Paul Blake, Sony/ATV Music Publishing and Mike Bosner, in association with Michael Harrison
The Palace Theatre, Manchester
12 December 2017 to 06 January 2018

Carole King was at the forefront of two distinct popular music movements. In the early 1960s along with husband Gerry Goffin she was one of the Tin Pan Alley composers who wrote wonderful songs for other artists to perform. Unlike many of her contemporaries, King had the musical chops to perform her own songs and later became the artist who pretty much defined the 1970s sensitive singer / songwriter genre.

Teenager Carole King (Bronté Barbé) is intelligent and a capable composer but struggles with lyrics until she meets fellow student and aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin (Oliver Parry). The couple enjoy a friendly competitiveness with fellow writers Cynthia Weil (Ellen Richardson) and Barry Mann (Matthew Gonsalves). But King and Goffin married too young and the latter’s wandering eye and growing mental problems ensure that King soon has the experience to ensure she is able to write deeper lyrics for what turns out to be a musical masterpiece.

The story of Beautiful falls neatly into two distinct sections. The first act being a selection of the lively chart hits that King and her friends wrote for other artists while the second deals with King's growing independence and the development of her solo album ‘Tapestry’. It makes for an uneven show – the first half is stuffed with choreographer Josh Prince’s precise and hugely entertaining (if possibly tongue in cheek) dance routines while in the second act the characters have to stand around looking thoughtful as King bares her soul.

It is an approach that works largely because of Bronté Barbé’s sensitive performance. During the first act, King seems almost a guest in her own show as Barbé wanders around defensively round-shouldered and timidly allowing herself to be overshadowed by Ellen Richardson’s glamorous and confident Cynthia Weil. The development of King’s character is apparent in much more than just a change of wigs as Barbé shows the cathartic effect of translating pain into art – and her vocals are stunning.

Director Marc Bruni creates a larger than life fantasy landscape in which everyone is witty and every speech ends in a punchline. It is a bright brash setting close to a fairy-tale: when King and Goffin pitch a song to their babysitter she swirls around and her drab clothes transform into the height of fashion. It is highly engaging but not very dramatic; you just know that when a character agonises that a song is not up to scratch it will be revealed to be a tune the audience will recognise as a classic.

In many ways Beautiful is not just a tribute to the writing of Carole King but also the way that the entertainment industry can enlarge and enlighten lives. Buni does not ignore the contradictions involved and there is a strong sense of time and place. This was, it is made clear, a period when soulful black performers aspired to become ‘sophisticated’ supper club singers dressed up in ball gowns, dancing in perfect synchronisation and swamping songs in strings.

It cannot be denied that Beautiful is a jukebox musical but it is one with a difference – every song here is a gem and the only possible complaint is that, on occasion, we hear only a snatch rather than the full version.

Reviewer: David Cunningham