Carole King is such an exceptional songwriter (both with her husband Gerry Goffin and singlehandedly in her own right), that a biographical musical detailing her life and extensive back catalogue was inevitable. Sure enough, ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ first hit US stages in 2013, transferring to Broadway in 2014 and the West End in 2015, and has also enjoyed a UK tour in 2017. Leicester’s Curve have teamed up with the Theatre Royal Bath and the Mayflower Theatre Southampton to create a new adaptation, which has kicked off a new UK tour this week.
Spanning 1958 to 1971, ‘Beautiful’ tells King’s story from being a 16-year-old aspiring songwriter, to finding success with Goffin (in more ways than one), rivalry with fellow songwriters and friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and setting out on her own path as a solo artist, culminating in her concert performance at Carnegie Hall in 1971 in celebration of her legendary album “Tapestry”. While using her talents to create iconic and timeless songs for others, the musical shows how King took time to start believing in herself and eventually tell her own story, in her own distinctive voice.
‘Beautiful’ sits in the middle of the road when it comes to successful biographical musicals. While King’s story lacks the narrative drama and tension of ‘Tina’ and ‘Jersey Boys’, it does at least feel a more satisfying journey than the likes of ‘On Your Feet’ and ‘Thriller’, which although enjoyable enough, never dig particularly deeply. The plot may be little more than “she wanted to become a songwriter, and eventually she did”, King makes for an engaging lead character, and seeing the artistic process behind the creation of these legendary songs will be fascinating for music fans.
This new ‘Made At Curve’ production directed by Nikolai Foster has changed things up a bit from the previous UK incarnations, stripping back the set, and switching to an “actor-musician” cast, whereby the actors assist in creating the music when they’re not delivering their lines. This approach can work well in a handful of musicals but feels jarring here. One minute a lead character is speaking in a scene, next they’re on the side lines in the next scene playing a trumpet. This breaks the magic and reminds us that what we’re watching isn’t real, which although we already know, we don’t want to be reminded of. The set is also too minimal, feeling dwarfed by the remainder of Curve’s cavernous performance space, with the sides left open and allowing the audience to see everything that’s happening backstage. Again, this breaks the spell that theatre should create. Backdrops are little more than large wooden panels that look left over from a construction site, and metal staircases are clunkily wheeled on and off as required. Sadly, it often looks unfinished and lacking the normal Curve “wow” factor.
Previous productions of ‘Beautiful’ have tried to conjure up moments of showbiz glitz and glamour when King & Goffin’s songs are eventually famously recorded by well-known artists (The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva), but again these don’t feel as polished as you’d expect from Curve. Putting Little Eva on rollerskates for the Locomotion also feels a misstep, feeling cheesy and looking somewhat awkward. More attention should also have been paid to the character’s appearances in respect of the passing of time; everyone looks exactly the same at the end of the show as the beginning, despite 13 years of life happening in between. Previously, wigs have been used to show King changing as a person (naïve teen, lovestruck young adult, frustrated housewife, liberated soul), and some visual identifiers would help to sell her journey more.
Where this musical excels is its score. King & Goffin were/are incredible artists, and their songs are still a joy to hear some 60 years after their composition. The obvious ones are included, along with some rarer ones, and musically the show doesn’t put a foot wrong. Act 2 also shines a light on just how brilliant King’s “Tapestry” album was, with over half of its tracks included here. The cast also do a great job in creating a rich sound that really shows the songs off to their fullest.
Performances are strong, which helps to detract from the lacklustre production going on around them. Tom Milner does well as Gerry Goffin, showing the songwriter’s inner struggles while sounding great in his numbers. Seren Sandham-Davies (Cynthia Weil) and Jos Slovick (Barry Mann) also make for a great partnership and bounce off each other well, getting the most out of their lines. Slovick also excels in his solos where he gets to show off his fantastic voice. Leading the show as King is Molly-Grace Cutler, who is exceptional. From the moment she sings her opening line of the show, she IS Carole King. Capturing the songwriter’s earthy essence and free-spirited soul in her vocals perfectly. She is also a skilled actress, being both funny and showing real emotion throughout. Cutler fits the character like a glove, and her performance alone is worth buying a ticket for.
‘Beautiful’ is an enjoyable journey through a prolific songwriter’s career, and while it may lack something in the way of a meaty story, the music and performances guarantee a good time is had. It’s just a shame that the production itself feels lacking and has been done better before.
‘Beautiful’ runs at Leicester Curve until Saturday 12th March before touring the UK until October 2022. Performance runtime 2 hours 20 minutes including interval. https://www.curveonline.co.uk/whats-on/shows/beautiful-the-carole-king-musical/
Reviewer: Rob Bartley
Reviewed: 3rd March 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★