Originally published on London Box Office
I have to admit, before this musical I belonged to one of the uncultured masses. Yes, I had heard of Carole King and I knew she was a famous songwriter, but I couldn’t have named any of her songs. I always associated her with the music of the generation above me, one of the names of the past that I knew was well respected but didn’t really know why.
I’m also not the biggest fan of jukebox musicals, so I didn’t go to the Aldwych Theatre expecting to particularly enjoy this show. Having experienced the magic that is Beautiful: The Carole King Musical I am completely converted. I hold my hands up, I was totally wrong in my first opinion of this show and as it turns out I knew a lot more Carole King songs than I thought. That woman is utterly incredible.
Based on a somewhat threadbare storyline, ‘Beautiful’ tells the story of 16 year old Brooklyn born Carole King (Katie Brayben) who, despite being moved up to college early, is determined to be a songwriter despite her mother’s (Glynis Barber) wish for her to pursue a more secure career. Eventually, Carole’s efforts succeed when she knocks on the door of Donnie Kirshner (Gary Trainor) and scores her first songwriting hit. Meanwhile at college the partnership, both professional and romantic, between King (Brayben) and Gerry Goffin (Alan Morrissey) blossoms and their songwriting duo goes from strength to strength in tandem with friends and fellow duo Cynthia Weil (Lorna Want) and Barry Mann (Ian McIntosh). Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems.
The whole musical is really a showcase for the incredible talent of King (Brayben), both in the songs themselves and in how beautifully they are delivered. Brayben stands head and shoulders above the rest here. Initially I thought that her voice sounded a bit tired and broke at some key moments within the earlier songs (in particular ‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’) but any vocal cobwebs were most definitely shaken off by the end of the first half. Brayben has a very smooth and easy to listen to tone with just a touch of country twang that pays tribute to the great songwriter herself. But the most wonderful part about Brayben is how she seems to pour emotion into her performance – she obviously has a very clear idea of what the songs mean and conveys this time and time again to the audience with heart-breaking ease. Songs like ‘Will you Love Me Tomorrow’ and ‘One Fine Day’ are brimming with hope & despair as Brayben takes the audience through a rollercoaster of emotions that anyone in her position would be feeling. But it’s in the second half when Brayben really comes into alive emotionally. ‘It’s Too Late’ is fresh and cool and stylistically unlike anything else in the production; I loved the setting for this scene, a backstreet bar where true fans of music would frequent, not because it was popular or well-known but simply because they wanted to soak up the creative atmosphere. Of course I always suspected that the crowning song in this show would be ‘A Natural Woman’ – a big ask for Brayben to deliver right at the end of the second half, stepping into not only King’s but Aretha Franklin’s shoes. Now it’s not fair to compare this performance to Aretha, it didn’t have the soul or the power. But it had heart and passion and a beautifully controlled vocal that broke in all the right places. It moved me to tears and I can’t really ask for more in a song.
I’ve spoken a lot about Brayben here and she deserves the majority of the praise. But she did have good support in the form of Cynthia Weil (Want) – the women outshined the men in this production. Weil (Want) was gutsy and confident with a more musical theatre trained voice; ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ was pure and clean with just the right amount of vibrato. Her duets with Barry Mann (McIntosh) showcase her talent more so than his – ‘He’s Sure the Boy I Love’ and ‘Walking in the Rain’ had lovely harmony and Weil rightfully took the lead on both counts. Mann (McIntosh) showcases his vocal style as having a grittier edge in ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ – you can see how he had parts in ‘The Commitments’ and ‘Rock of Ages’. The ensemble cast also had some good moments, with The Drifters’ version of ‘On Broadway’ being the standout piece for me – excellent harmonies and great choreography, typical of the band and period. Tanya Nicole-Edwards also deserves a mention for taking the lead on ‘Uptown’. In fact the only characters I wasn’t happy with were Goffin (Morrissey) and Kirshner (Trainor). Trainor didn’t sing but the acting seemed a bit stale and desperate for laughs. Morrissey had a tough job playing across from Brayben but was not up to par on either the acting or singing in my opinion; I didn’t feel the same level of depth from his character, almost as if he were going through the motions without feeling the emotions.
I didn’t expect to like this musical, but I did. That is quite something as I’m quite quick to cement a first impression. Emotional, uplifting and some truly wonderful songs, thanks to the genius that is Carole King. This musical does a fitting tribute to her greatness.