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The Theatreguide.London Review

Aldwych Theatre  2015 - 2017

Beautiful – or, to give it its full title, Beautiful The Carole King Musical – is a Good Night Out musical, but not a Great Night Out musical. 

It belongs to that category dubbed the juke-box musical – that is, one built on the existing back catalogue of a successful pop songwriter or performer rather than original songs – and its structure is a conventional and-then-I-wrote biography, so it is doubly formulaic. 

Fortunately the back catalogue and biography are those of songwriter-singer Carole King. 

In the 1950s and early 1960s King, working largely with lyricist and eventually husband Gerry Goffin, wrote more than fifty pop hits for performers ranging from Little Eva (The Locomotion) to The Monkees (Pleasant Valley Sunday). 

Following the breakup of her marriage in the mid-60s she moved from New York to Los Angeles and redefined herself as a solo songwriter-pianist-singer, her high point being the every-award-possible-winning 1971 album Tapestry. 

Beautiful tells this story straight-forwardly. Act One is built largely on the friendly rivalry between the Goffins and the team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the couples taking turns topping each other with hit songs, and in fact there are as many Mann-Weil songs in Beautiful's score as Goffin-King numbers. Act Two takes us through the end of the marriage and the beginning of Carole's new career as a performer. 

That plot line – book by Douglas McGrath – proves adequate as a framework on which to hang the songs, though it has none of the texture of Jersey Boys' alternative histories. But its purely serviceable nature means that all the attraction of Beautiful lies in the songs and their performances. 

The songs aren't just a nostalgic 70-year-old's delight, but among the best of an era, including You've Lost That Lovin Feeling (by Mann & Weil), Up On The Roof and Natural Woman. 

The performances can be a bit of a let-down, not through any failings of the singers, but because McGrath's book makes most of them one-piano demos by the songwriters as they compose or play for each other. 

Every third or fourth number in Act One puts us on a stage as imitators of The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva or The Righteous Brothers give their hits full productions, and choreographer Josh Prince has fun with only-slightly-exaggerated versions of the close-formation dancing-in-place that was the Motown house style. 

The audience, for many of whom this is all new, take particular delight in those numbers and the energy level of the show leaps up for a few moments, but only to leave the next hey-listen-to-what-I-just-wrote song feeling paler again. 

Katie Brayben takes Carole from naοve but ambitious teenybopper, through suburban housewife who happens to write songs, to hippyish earth mother, playing each role and singing each style of song effectively although the script doesn't really give her much chance to make them all seem the same woman. 

Alan Morrissey's Goffin is made the villain of the piece and Morrisey has to struggle to keep him at all sympathetic. Lorna Want as Weil and Ian McIntosh as Mann offer generous support in roles that are written as little more than generic-best-friends, and I'm not quite convinced that producer-publisher Don Kirschner was as benign a teddy bear as Gary Trainer attractively makes him. 

Every musical ultimately lives or dies on its songs, but a Great Night Out wants a little bit more. Mamma Mia has great songs and big dance numbers. Jersey Boys has great songs and a more complex than usual book. Beautiful has very good songs.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Beautiful - Aldwych Theatre 2015    

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