Living legend Carole King has left an indelible mark on musical history. From her days penning teeny-bopper hits with her first husband Gerry Goffin to becoming a hugely influential singer-songwriter in her own right, King’s impact is undeniable. By the time King and Goffin were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, they’d penned over 400 songs which resulted in more than 100 hit singles by such artists as Aretha Franklin, James Taylor, and the Monkees. When their marriage broke down, King struck out on her own – and her journey to the stars is told to great effect in Leicester Curve’s touring production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (with Theatre Royal Bath and Mayflower Theatre). But unlike the Broadway and West End versions which preceded it, the songs are performed entirely by an ensemble of actor-musicians who truly do create ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’.
Written by Douglas McGrath and directed by Nikolai Foster, Beautiful charts Carole’s journey from a gawky teen in the Bronx to a star who can sell out Carnegie Hall, and that’s where the show begins and ends: with Carole waiting in the wings, about to play her first concert performance in front of an audience. The concert followed hot on the heels of the multi-award winning Tapestry, which remained the bestselling album by a solo female artist for 25 years. If you’ve seen any music biopic, you’ll know the drill: a future icon rises from obscurity into the big leagues. It’s a credit, then, to the stellar cast that this tale as old as time feels fresh, new, and utterly joyous.
As Carole King herself, Molly-Grace Cutler is nothing short of transcendent. Cutler brings a tremendous amount of passion, warmth and emotion to the role, and a genuine intensity to the musical performances that makes you understand why King’s songs still resonate. If Cutler’s rendition of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman doesn’t give you chills, then you might well have died and gone to heaven. She’s so likable and well-drawn that you really feel You’ve Got a Friend in her. Cutler is a natural in every way and she captures both King’s voice and her soul.
Meanwhile, Tom Milner does his job a bit too well as the troubled, two-timing Gerry: by the time he reappears at King’s closing concert, the audience were so close to booing him it was as if we’d stepped into a pantomime! It’s a credit to Milner, Cutler and the cast that the audience were so invested in their characters. Meanwhile, Seren Sandham-Davies and Jos Slovick are hilariously charming as Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, a songwriting duo who blazed their own trail in music history (You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling, Who Put the Bomp) and whose rivalry with King/Goffin is tempered by a genuine sense of friendship.
The cast are in a constant flow across the stage, seamlessly changing between costumes, characters and musical instruments. The Drifters are on particularly lively form (special mention to Kevin Yates on tambourine), and they bring a genuine sense of playfulness and fun just as The Shirelles bring more than a little glamour. Weil and Mann’s On Broadway – performed by the Drifters in sparkly jackets and Ben Cracknell’s equally glitzy light show – is one of the standouts, but there’s little that can compare with the aching grace of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? or the saucy roar of I Feel the Earth Move. Edd Lindley’s costumes place you in the era while Leah Hill’s choreography looks to the future, and Frankie Bradshaw’s music studio-set makes you feel as if you’re part of the action.
The perfect ensemble ensures that the show really lives up to its name and they weave a sumptuous tapestry through some of the finest music you’ll ever hear – it’s no surprise that the audience was on its feet by the end. The show has a lot to say about forging your own path, and it concludes that while your story might find more success in another’s voice, your own is always the most beautiful.
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