Sunday, 1 March 2015

'Beautiful - The Carole King Musical' at the Aldwych Theatre

The title, 'Beautiful - The Carole King Musical' at the Aldwych rather gives away what the show is about. I haven't seen any of the reviews but I guessed it would be her story from the late 50s and through the 60s up to 'Tapestry' and it was.

It's not solely the story of Carole and her husband and song-writing partner Gerry Goffin, there's also a generous nod towards their friends and songwriting rivals Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. This brings in a wider range of flavours and sounds for the show since we hear many of their great songs as well.  It's also a rather funny show, surprisingly so really, with some lovely comic moments such as Neil Sedaka popping onto the edge of the stage a couple of times to sing snatches of 'Oh Carole'. That was great fun!

Say 'Carole King' and I suppose most people will think of the singer-songwriter years of 'Tapestry' and after and, although I know she wrote loads of hits in the first half of the 60s and was a Brill Building denizen, that part of her career always seems to be the second thought. At least it is for me so it was great to hear and see some of those hits performed. It's amazing how the tunes and words come flooding back from years ago.

There's a lovely sequence early on when she and Gerry have just written a song for the Shirelles and Carole promises it'll be fully orchestrated for recording the next morning. As Carole exits the stage she quips that she's off to the library to find a book on orchestration. And the Shirelle girls walk behind a small screen to emerge without losing a step in glamorous pink silk frocks ready for a full-on performance - the quickest change I've ever seen! That was great fun, with silver drapes appearing from nowhere. There's another very dramatic performance of the Drifters singing 'On Broadway'. Both were great sequences. The one with Little Eva was a bit silly when Gerry says 'C'mon Little Eva' to the babysitter to make sure we knew who she was but did they really call her 'Little Eva' in the house?

Of course, we also get songs from the four leads as well but these are less 'performancy' than the Shirelles and Drifters segments. Except for 'Pleasant Valley Sunday' with the whole stage suddenly going psychedelic in a totally unexpected way, particularly since I'd forgotten Goffen/King had written that one (one of my favourite songs by the Monkees). The stage really came alive for that song towards the end of the first half shortly before they split up when Carole finds out that Gerry is having another affair.

The second half is about Carole finding herself as a singer-songwriter, moving to California, recording 'Tapestry' and closes with her returning to New York for a triumphant show at Carnegie Hall. It's just as fast paced as the first half and we get songs shoe-horned in to help tell the story, such as 'You've Got A Friend' sung to her friends as Carole is clearing out her old office in the Brill Building before moving to California.

All in all it's great fun and the audience certainly loved it - they were, shall we say, of a certain age (i.e. older than me!) and quite probably bought the records when they came out. The standing ovation - 100% as far as I could see - was rather unexpected but seemed much appreciated by the actors on stage. When 'Tapestry' was released I was buying records by SLADE and T.Rex and Sweet, trying to buy platform boots and wanting a tank top. I succeeded.

Katie Brayben was good as Carole King (and has her look) but I have to say I preferred Lorna Want as Cynthia Weil, a far more feisty character with better clothes. I also liked the Shirelle girls and the Drifters boys - well done people!

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