Beautiful - The Carole King Story (WE, 2015)
Mar 10, 2015
There has always been a trickle of cheap and cheerful 'here's a load of songs you already have on CD' musicals running in London, whether it was Buddy (which ran ten years) or Smokey Joe's Cafe (based on Leiber and Stoller) or Five Guys Named Moe (using Louis Armstrong) - the latter remaining the most entertaining of them all.
But the trickle became an avalanche after Mamma Mia! when it became clear that the quality of pop songs would outweigh any intellectual or dramatic limitations, and that people would forgive anything if the songs were ones they already knew and loved. Few exceptions - Jersey Boys foremost among them - stuck their neck out by getting a proper script or a top flight director. Most of the rest have made do.
Joining the current crop of mix-tape musicals that includes Sunny Afternoon, The Commitments and Thriller Live! is Beautiful - a musical which places itself resolutely in the middle of the road and sets its sights no higher that the turn tables of the x-million greatest hits CDs that its subject, the great Carole King, has sold over her mighty fifty year career.
Beautiful may not be as gorgeous as the songs but nor is it a plain Jane. The set shines like the Oscar set that the designer Derek McLane has previously created; the sound is better than for most musicals (it even won a Tony) and the characters are acted with more dimension than Douglas McGrath's script might have allowed them. Those who want to listen to a greatest hits gig in public are sumptuously served with the brilliance - occasionally even dazzle - of the songs and the chutzpah with which they are delivered.
Just as Jersey Boys has Walk Like a Man and We Will Rock You had Bohemian Rhapsody, Beautiful has The Locomotion. And boy oh boy that's a song worth hearing and seeing live. And so is You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling. And You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman. And Will You Love Me Tomorrow. If you're interested in booking for Beautiful, the songs will be why.
All of these copper-bottomed hits would count for nothing were it not for Katie Brayben. Previously unknown outside of theatre circles but now pushing herself into a major league, Brayben plays King truthfully and unshowily while also giving the songs the power and attack you'd expect at a gig. When the crowd rises to their feet at the curtain call, they are rising for her.
The difficulty some may find with a show telling Carole King's life story is that she has not had a life crowded with incident. Where the Four Seasons (the basis of Jersey Boys) had to deal with the mob, Carole King had to deal with playing strip poker with her best friends on a weekend away. Where Mamma Mia! sets itself on a Greek island, Beautiful moves back and forth between recording studios and living rooms.
The house lights go down at 7.30; at 7.35 a young King asks her mother to let her try and sell a song to a record company rather than pursuing a normal job; by 7.40 she's made a sale. I wish I had her problems. Her husband leaves her conveniently in time for the interval so that she can do the 'sing a famous song through tears of pain' routine so beloved of these sorts of shows.
But, other than that, King has few problems worthy of the theatrical time spent on them.
Her producer, "The Man with the Golden Ear" Don Kirshner, charismatically played by Gary Trainor, has the unenviable job of saying variations on "It's great, it'll be a hit" for 2 1/2 hours, which takes some beating. On the other hand it's probably just as well that her producer wasn't Phil Spector.
Whether you enjoy Beautiful depends on what you're looking for. If you want to have a theatrical experience, I wouldn't set your hopes too high. You're going to a gig with a story. If you want to pulse to the beat of some of the greatest songs of the 60s and 70s - rather as you would if you had a greatest hits album playing at full blast on your stereo - then this songbook show is one of the better ways of spending an evening.
And judging from the audience reaction and the clutch of Olivier nominations it recently received, this King musical may be remaining on the throne for a fair while yet.