Beautiful at the Churchill Theatre
So much more than a jukebox musical, Beautiful tells the story of prolific singer-songwriter Carole King, setting her early life and career against a soundtrack of classic pop songs from the 50s through to the early 70s – all written by King and Gerry Goffin and their contemporaries, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. A reluctant star, King is portrayed as far more comfortable writing songs than performing them. But as her personal life stumbles, her professional confidence grows.
Having enjoyed a two and a half year run in London’s West End, the show has now set out on its second UK tour, covering 27 venues across the UK and Ireland. Its first stop is a sold-out run at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre. With the West End production, I was very late to the party, seeing and loving the show in its final week of performance. So, I was very much looking forward to watching this fresh new production at the beginning of its run.
This touring production has lost none of the slickness that made its West End predecessor such a hit. The set is extremely effective. The backdrop of publisher Don Kirshner’s “hit factory” dominates, with multiple levels and cast members going about their day with an energy that brings this creative hub to life. Simple furniture is brought on to represent various offices and homes, always with a piano front and centre. Scene changes are seamless and the company clearly gels.
Although Beautiful tells Carole King’s story, there are plenty of other “stars” on stage. As each well-known song is introduced to the audience, we are taken from the writing room to the professional stage, from the original simple melody to the finished product, with the ensemble cast performing as stars including The Drifters, The Shirelles and The Righteous Brothers. We also meet Little Eva, babysitter turned popstar, a running gag that is very well received. All of these performances are recreated with authentic costumes (with some very quick changes!) and well-drilled choreography from Josh Prince, all getting fantastic reactions from the delighted audience. I did feel that at times some of the solo vocals were a little shaky in places, slightly fighting against the choreography, but every soloist rose to the occasion on the big notes so I’m sure this is something that will get better and better with every performance.
Entertaining though these star turns are, the real magic happens in the writing room, when these huge hits are sung for the first time. The four actors playing Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann have fantastic chemistry, as a group and also in their partnerships. Their simple renditions of the songs we all know are highlights of the show.
Of course, Beautiful centres around Carole King. And in Daisy Wood-Davis, this production has found an absolute star. Her performance is outstanding. She takes us on an emotional journey from ridiculously fresh-faced 16 year old Carole Klein (King), looking for her first songwriting break, through to her triumphant performance as a solo artist at Carnegie Hall. There are plenty of setbacks along the way, but we can see all of these challenges building King’s personal confidence and presence as the show progresses. Her simple rendition of ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ gave me goosebumps and her reprise of ‘One Fine Day’ broke my heart.
A lot of King’s challenges come from her husband and writing partner, Gerry Goffin, played by Adam Gillian. He is totally convincing as the charming young talent who sweeps King off her feet and, despite the frustrations, anger and infidelity that end their marriage, Gillian’s portrayal remains sympathetic, and his gradual breakdown is very well played.
Although Carole King’s story is not always a happy one, the script has plenty of humour, a lot of it coming from her close friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, played by Laura Baldwin and Cameron Sharp. Their partnership is a joy to watch, they bounce off each other with witty but affectionate verbal sparring and both have strong singing voices that blend perfectly together.
The show itself has a very different feel in its two acts. Act One establishes the characters and charts their rise to success. It offers plenty of laughs and an endless stream of hit songs. Act Two takes a more serious tone as relationships are challenged and the music industry moves on from the bubblegum pop of the early 60s. A scene set at Carole and Gerry’s house feels a little forced with rather clunky dialogue. The scene does manage to move the plot along – bringing to a head the growing tensions between the couple – but the inclusion of a solo for Barry Mann, ‘We’ve Got To Get Out of This Place’, adds little more than a solo for the actor and feels unnecessary. This is, however, a minor gripe as generally the pace of the show is excellent, and Director Marc Bruni hits just the right tone in telling the story.
A trip to see Beautiful is a hugely enjoyable way to spend an evening. It does not shy away from showing the struggles that Carole King went through but manages to inject plenty of humour and optimism along with an incredible soundtrack to keep the audience smiling all the way to a fabulous finale that showcases King’s extraordinary talent.
Review by Penny Walshe
Beautiful is at the Churchill theatre until 18th January and will continue its tour from there. For tickets and details of locations visit the website.