Beautiful – The Carole King Musical
Newcastle Theatre Royal
Until Saturday 23 April 2022
Beautiful is a bio-musical about a songwriter who had written or co-written 118 pop hits on the US Billboard Hot 100 of which 61 charted in the UK. Covering a creatively fertile period from 1958 to 1971, the musical, written by Douglas McGrath, is packed full of great songs. As one lady leaving the theatre behind us said “I never realised all of those songs were written by the same person”. A lot of happy people left the Theatre Royal tonight and that is thanks to a talented ensemble delivering a treasure trove of wonderful music.
The show begins in Carnegie Hall in 1971, with Molly-Grace Cutler, as Carole King, singing So Far Away and talking to the audience about her reaction to performing in such an iconic venue. Ben Cracknell’s lighting design literally fills the stage with big venue lighting, and a huge lit up “beautiful” sign, to help set the scene.
Quickly the action shifts back to about 1958. Carole has skipped 2 grades at school and, despite being only 16, she is already at Queen’s College studying, by her Mothers’s recommendation, education. She is keen to see if anyone will buy her songs so she heads off with a friend to the offices of Donnie Kirshner (Garry Robson) who takes a punt on the young talent.
At this point the audience need to strap themselves in for a whirlwind experience as she meets lyricist Gerry Goffin (Tom Milner) in one moment and in a blink of eye they become both a working partnership that is married with a young child. All of this happening whilst wearing the same cardigan throughout!
There is little hanging around in this show as a few biographical details are presented before an opportunity for the next song. But, somehow, the fast pace from director Nikolai Foster works and the audience does get emotionally involved. Now, I’m not going for any plot spoilers…but the sharp intake of breath collectively (followed by laughter as they recognised what they’d done) at the end shows that the audience were committed to the characters in the story.
The show also features the lives of the successful songwriters in the next office - Barry Mann (Jos Slovick) and Cynthia Well (Seren Sandham-Davies). Their rivalry and attitudes to the changing times throughout the 60s acts as a nice counterpoint to the experience of King and her husband.
All of the performance takes place on the stage. For much of the show the set up is the recording studio on Broadway and the drummers are placed in a booth. The rest of the musicians are up on the stage - including musical director Dan-De-Cruz, who gets up and performs as both Neil Sedaka and one of the Righteous Brothers. The audience thus gets a full appreciation of what is often tucked away in the orchestra pit.
Having the musicians on the perimeter of the performance space at the start of songs may work in most venues. Unfortunately, and this is a minor quibble, the sight lines from the edges of the circle at the Theatre Royal may mean that you don’t see where some of the music is coming from until part way through the song as the performers often move closer to the centre. As a result, the couple next to me moved, at the interval, to some central empty seats on the back row to change their view.
The musicians really do perform well - though the people involved include the “regular cast” as they are expected to pick up an instrument and support the piece.
This leads me to the vocal performances which were universally wonderful. It is hard to pull out a single key moment. Molly-Grace Cutler does a superb job as Carole King. Her voice conveying the emotion and power that goes with It Might As Well Rain Until September, Will You Love Me Tomorrow? It’s Too Late and Beautiful. For me, two other great moments were the energy of Little Eva in the Locomotion and the club performance of Uptown.
Beautiful works as a fast paced musical. Sure, we could have had a bit more detail in the dialogue but it was fairly easy to work out what was happening. But ultimately, the songs have survived the test of time because they are so timeless. It gives you a real buzz leaving a theatre hearing positive comments from the audience. Indeed you find yourself wanting to play more of the music. The talent on stage fully deserved the enthusiastic applause at the end.
Review: Stephen Oliver
Photos: Ellie Kurttz
Tickets are priced from £15.00 and can be purchased at www.theatreroyal.co.uk or from the Theatre Royal Box Office on 0191 232 7010.