Beautiful – The Carol King Musical

April 7, 2022 | By More

★★★★☆   A beauty

Festival Theatre: Tue 5 – Sat 9 April 2022
Review by Thom Dibdin

Clever staging and a spot-on cast of actor-musicians bring director Nikolai Foster’s slick new production of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical to life on the Festival Theatre stage this week.

Not to forget a brilliant turn from Molly-Grace Cutler in the title role. She captures enough of both Carole King’s spoken mannerisms and her big singing voice to convince the fans while investing enough depth in her character to convince in theatrical terms.

Molly Grace-Cutler (Carole King) and Tom Milner (Gerry Goffin). Pic: Ellie Kurttz

As a jukebox musical, Beautiful was always going to be a struggle – for the best reason: the sheer scale of King’s musical output. She penned the music to over 400 songs – 100 of which were hits – recorded by over 1,000 artists. What to choose?

The solution, in Douglas McGrath’s book for this musical first staged in 2003, is to use her songs to illustrate and reflect on King’s early life, from selling her first song in 1958 aged 16 up until her appearance at the Carnegie Hall in 1971 at the height of her fame from her first solo album Tapestry.

And what better way to look at the tribulations of this headstrong yet self-doubting young woman, who married her first song-writing partner Gerry Goffin aged 17, had their first child aged 18 and had divorced him for his infidelities by 1968?

exposes the workings

For this new production, designer Frankie Bradshaw strips it right back to the wings, exposing the workings of the theatre in the way the story exposes the workings of song-writing. She wheels in bits of set that suggest rather portray the setting as it jumps from the Carnegie Hall stage, to home to recording studio and back to end up at the Carnegie Hall.

The basis, though, is an open-plan recording studio with plenty of stencilled references to 1650 Broadway – the building where record producer and hit-maker Donnie Kirshner had his offices, with plywood walls and tiny cubicles where his writers would grind out their hits.

Top Tom Milner (Gerry Goffin) Below: Dylan Gordon-Jones, Kevin Yates, Kemi Clarke and Myles Miller (The Drifters). Pic: Ellie Kurttz

The actor-musicians mill around, dropping in to provide backing vocals or big up the arrangement – before slipping off stage to return as a member of one of the groups which had hits with King-Goffin songs – maybe the Drifters’ Some Kind Wonderful or The Shirelles’ Will You Love Me Tomorrow.

This slipping between narrative and numbers, with the songs often growing out of the narrative itself, gives a different edge to the songs themselves. They don’t need to be perfect replicas of the original hits. It also allows for such moments as the brilliant 1650 Broadway Melody which introduces the studios.

This slipping between characters doesn’t allow for great depth in character – but there again, the nuance is really provided by the music and lyrics.

For the main performers, Tom Milner is hunky enough to fit as Gerry Goffin but doesn’t have a huge opportunity to develop the complexities of his character – a mental breakdown, drug use and infidelities  are depicted but not explored.

Seren Sandham-Davies (Cynthia Weil) and Jos Slovick (Barry Mann). Pic: Ellie Kurttz

Seren Sandham-Davies and Jos Slovick are strong presences as Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, the couple who met at 1650 Broadway and whose song-writing partnership is used to illustrate the way that Kirshner would set his writers off against one another. Their own relationship and friendship with King and Goffin is a strong second-strand to the narrative.

Gary Robson is a heartening presence as Kirshner, engaging with his writers who he might know how to manipulate but who he clearly – at least in the case of the four leads – has great affinity with.

This was of course also an era of changing attitudes – racial and otherwise – in America and King’s music had its part to play in that. Beautiful touches on the political issues of African American performers and the changing youth demographic, without going into any great depth.

That’s as may be. Because above all this is a celebration of King’s music and her early life. With some decidedly excellent costumes from Edd Lindley (Little Eva’s is a real peach!) this really captures the vibe of the life and times of one of musics greats.

Running time: Two hours and 25 minutes (including one interval)
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT. Phone booking: 0131 529 6000.
Tue 5 – Sat 9 April 2022
Tue – Sat: 7.30pm; Weds, Thurs, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

The cast of Beautiful The Carole King Musical. Pic: Ellie Kurttz

ENDS

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