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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Aldwych Theatre


  Ph: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

It is unthinkable that Beautiful, the West End's latest Broadway import  will ever become anyone's desert-island musical. The first half, which purports to take us behind the scenes of the burgeoning rock milieu in the late 50s as it traces the career of 16-year-old Brooklynite Carole King (born Carol Kline), is little more than a showcase for the many hits King wrote in collaboration with her lyricist Jerry Goffin, who also became her husband. Douglas McGrath's serviceable but sketchy book makes it all look so easy. And so perfunctory.

Teenager King strikes it lucky with her very first visit to New York music producer Dannie Kirshner, where not only does she get to see him without an appointment, but immediately sells him one of her songs. Just like that!

From then on, the King-Goffin catalogue, augmented every now and then by hits from their friends-cum-rivals Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann ("Uptown," "You've Lost That Loving Feeling") help round out the irresistibly nostalgic, era-defining soundtrack to every baby-boomer's life.

The seriously rationed dramatic momentum perks up slightly in the show's second half when Goffin's womanising and unwillingness to spend quality time with his wife and family (they had two daughters) wrecks the marriage.

The silver lining to this familiar domestic narrative is that King is forced to take solo control of her life, which she does by divorcing Goffin and, in 1968, relocating to Los Angeles, where she works with legendary record producer Lou Adler, becomes a successful solo singer, marries husband number two (not referenced in the show) and, in 1971, makes the album Tapestry, which sells 25 million copies and includes such hits as "You've Got a Friend," "It's Too Late," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman."

The bottom line is that Beautiful, the musical, is a celebration of an endearing and enduring talent. And if you adhere to the maxim that it takes a star to play a star, success or failure depends on the actress playing Carole King.

On Broadway it was the little-known Jessie Mueller, who deservedly won a Tony for her efforts, and in the West End it is the equally unfamiliar Katie Brayben, who, in this career-defining role, is destined to win every award this side of the pond.

If, as I believe, the chief ingredient for a long-running musical is a central character you're rooting for from the minute you're introduced, then Beautiful, as embodied by the appealing Brayben, will run and run. She endows King with an energy, a determination, a warmth, a vulnerability and an overall quality audiences will find irresistible. At the performance I saw (not the first night) she was given a spontaneous standing ovation. She is the show's heart and soul and generously allows you to gloss over the flaws in this Reader's Digest version of the subject's life and career.

The rest of the cast, notably Lorna Want and Ian McIntosh as Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann perform a successful blood transfusion on their anaemic roles; ditto Glynis Barber as Carole's mother Genie, the show's brief comic relief.

Josh Prince effectively replicates the choreography of 60s groups such as The Shirelles and the Righteous Brothers, while the overall direction by Marc Bruni is slick and ultra-professional, with the emphasis, quite rightly, on showcasing its star.

The same audiences who made Jersey Boys into a humungous hit will love this one, too.


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