Beautiful at The Orchard Theatre

We must admit we feel a little naïve, admitting to each other “Who is Carole King?” We couldn’t think of many of her songs, but as fans of other Juke Box Musicals, we were excited to give this show a try.  Well, we were absolutely blown away!  Juke Box musical often implies there can be some tongue in cheek, tentative links to songs but the term doesn’t do this show justice.  The story telling was excellent with some real stand out moments.  It was indeed, Beautiful.

Carole’s career began in the early 60’s and she continues to write and perform today.  She has seen it, done it and is still living it today and it is difficult not to be impressed by her achievements.  Her deep musical catalogue shows her as a music legend and is testament to the many artists who have had the privilege to sing her songs including The Drifters, Aretha Franklin and The Beatles.

Beautiful is the story of Carole King, an American musician, songwriter, author and performer.  She has composed over 400 songs, recorded by over 1000 artists and clocked up over 100 hit songs.  The biopic tale of King’s life takes the audience through her teens, trying to make it as a female songwriter, to releasing her first solo album ‘Tapestry’ in 1971.  It follows her relationship with her first husband, Gerry Goffin, and their competitive rivalry with their close friends and song writing couple Weil/Mann.  Their stories dovetail into performances from the stars that sang their songs including the Shirelles, Marilyn Wald and, standing out for us, The Drifters.  We loved the comedic moments in the script, the energy, vocal talent and choreography – all in keeping with the era.

Staged on an open set, this remains the backdrop for the entire show with the cast seamlessly making scene changes, with a casual feel on stage working perfectly.  Recording rooms behind glass cleverly house a full drum kit and backing singers during some numbers.  There is a great energy and vibe on stage and the obvious enjoyment of each of the hugely talented cast members reaches the audience. At different points during the show, all cast members become part of the band which was hugely thrilling for us to witness.  This show is a muso’s dream with everyone showcasing musical ability by playing several instruments. Alongside, their dance ability and vocal talent, is something we had not seen before and makes you feel envious of the ‘quadruple threat’ – play, sing, dance, and act.  Without the ‘normal band’ format, this is exciting to watch. 

The skill of the stage MD, Dan De Cruz is evident with a subtle but wonderful direction of the cast.

We feel like we are running low on superlatives and we haven’t mentioned the leading lady yet! Molly-Grace Cutler was simply stunning as King. As she began singing in the opening scene, there were palpable gasps around us at how she had captured the soul of King’s vocal tone.  Her schoolgirl immaturity at the start of the show moved to adult anguish as the show progressed, sensitively touching on Goffin’s mental health struggles, which clearly impacted on her life and her music. There is no mention of formal training for Cutler and she has limited performance experience but she was totally deserved of the thunderous applause and standing ovation that she received at the end of the show.  She won an Olivier Award in 2020 for The Worst Witch and her talent is evident.  She really is the star of the show.

There were times where the story of Beautiful appeared to lose its way a little. The relevance of the rivalry with the other couple seemed a little weak at points and we were not sure about the depth and sincerity of these friendships. King, Goffin, Weil and Mann were all part of the production team so have played an integral part in the show but I feel like it just scratched the surface of King’s life, turmoil and quest to find herself.  We certainly would have enjoyed the show being slightly longer to celebrate more of her achievements.  There was the opportunity for graphics showing real life footage or a nod to the incredible stash of awards that King won from 1971 onwards.  It’s all in the programme but would have been great to see it celebrated as part of the show.

As the musical reprise accompanied the curtain call the crowd remained on their feet and enjoyed a lively and entertaining finale.  As we left the auditorium, we were already Googling tour dates and locations with an overwhelming feeling to share this with family and friends.  Our expectations were exceeded and this cast deserve to perform to a packed house every night of this tour. Their talent and hard work should be seen and heard.  We are both singing the songs and Spotify playlists have been starred.

If you’re a Carole King novice, you won’t be by the end of Beautiful as you are left wanting to know more and hear more.  If you are a die-hard Carole King fan, then Cutler’s performance will certainly not disappoint.

Review by Nicci Garlick and Shan Lawrence.

Beautiful is playing at The Orchard Theatre until 30th April. To find out more about the show and to book tickets you can visit their website.

If you like this review you might also like my review of Chicago at the Orchard Theatre, Grease also at The Orchard Theatre and School of Rock at New Wimbledon Theatre.

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