An earlier production of Beautiful – photo Ralf Brinkhoff
If your life has not been touched by the music of Carole King then you must be either very young indeed, or from another planet.
We may all easily attribute to her the songs made famous on her huge selling 1971 ‘Tapestry’ album which over 25 million people bought, but she was also the writer of many fine tunes that became pop standards creating hits for many famous bands.
She started early in the business, recording her first song when she was 16 and marrying her lyricist Gerry Goffin when she was 17. Over the course of a very productive musical life she also married four times and had four children. She still performs from time to time, ignoring her own earlier claim to have retired, and in 2010 she and James Taylor staged one of the most successful tours by any artists in their Troubadour Reunion Tour.
It is little surprise then, that the production of a musical about her life has sold out in Norwich this week. But was the show beautiful – and will we still love her tomorrow?
The show starts with Carole as a globally successful singer taking the stage in Carnegie Hall, but we are quickly whisked back to her early days as she turns her teenage talent towards the burgeoning New York pop music business. She has some modest success with her own songs, including ‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’, written for Bobby Vee but charting modestly with Carole’s own version. But when she teamed up with Gerry Goffin (Kane Oliver Perry) as her lyricist and husband the hits started to tumble out.
Carole is played with great energy and passion by Bronté Barbé, a tiny bundle of passion and musical talent who gives a good rendition of Carole King’s distinctive voice. We see her develop from precocious but rather ‘straight’ teen into a 1970s hippy megastar, from prim cardigans to flowing flowery dresses. Bronté manages several quick changes so smoothly that I wondered if there were twins on stage.
This is a musical first and foremost, so there is a minimum of dialogue to interrupt the constant flow of music. As well as the Goffin-King songbook we also hear songs from their friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, who also feature as constant friends throughout Carole’s story. Cynthia is played with glamorous relish by Amy Ellen Richardson, with her hypochondriac musical partner and later husband Barry brought sparkling to life by Matthew Gonsalves. The interaction between the two power couples of pop writing forms much of the story of this production, slipping quickly over some details of a life far more complicated than this play has time to describe.
The 23 cast members have all been picked above all for their singing talents, which are universally strong and supported by a seven piece band in the orchestra pit. Furniture, props and backdrops whizz in and out at a some times dizzying rate, indeed one prop, the composing piano, caused a brief hiatus in the first half when it failed to swing in and out as expected. The cast picked up from this interruption with no visible wobbles, true professionals.
The complex set represents variously the King family homes and the production offices of impresario Donnie Kirshner (Adam Howden) and in between gets turned into a suitably snazzy backdrop for the likes of The Drifters (Some Kind Of Wonderful) and The Shirelles (Will You Love Me Tomorrow).
The show is, indeed, beautiful in that the music of Carole King is a delight and well presented here. It reflects briefly on the changing social mores but still gives a clear picture of how the sexual liberation of the times was a rather one sided affair for many women, as Carole has to tolerate the infidelity of her husband for too long. Kane Oliver Perry does his best to give substance to Goffin and show his struggles with his own demons, but gives us a character who is difficult to empathise with.
The musical numbers from The Drifters and The Shirelles are a joy, and the audience seems to enjoy the modern take on the dance routines which the cast present admirably tightly. There are other memorable musical moments – Grant McConvey as the bass lead in The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin Feeling” was one to cherish.
Overall this is an evening of fine music, well performed. A complex life story is crammed into a busy and fast moving stage performance, which leaves me wanting more, but above all this show reminds us that Carole King gave us songs that mirrored our lives, and spoke and sang for us with a unique eloquence and melody.
© Julian Swainson 2017
Beautiful, Tuesday 3-Saturday 7 October at 7.30pm, and Wed, Thurs and Sat matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets £8-£48.50. Discounts for Friends, Corporate Club, Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups. Captioned performance on Wed 4 Oct at 2.30pm. Audio-described performance on Sat 7 Oct at 2.30pm.
To book, log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000