I’d heard of Carole King, the teenage prodigy songwriter who went on to have a hit album of her own in Tapestry, but I didn’t know any of her songs – or so I thought. When I finally decided to take the plunge and buy a ticket to Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Aldwych Theatre – the show, directed by Marc Bruni, which premiered on Broadway – I realised that I actually knew many more songs than I had realised. This jukebox musical doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s very well crafted and proves an enjoyable night out.
We first meet the sixteen-year-old Carole as she tries to sell her songs, forms a writing partnership with Gerry Goffin – whom she also marries – and navigates the ups and downs of married life while trying to maintain musical success. However, it’s only when her marriage to Goffin ends that she finds the confidence to perform her own songs, culminating in the release of Tapestry and a career-defining performance at Carnegie Hall.
Douglas McGrath’s book is witty and charming, weaving the songs into the story of Carol’s life. Alan Morrissey gives a great performance as Goffin, while Lorna Want and Ian McIntosh are excellent as Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, their rival songwriting partnership. However, the star of the show is Katie Brayben, who is wonderful as Carole. Not knowing much about the real-life performer, I can’t comment on whether or not her voice and persona matches King’s, but judging on her performance alone she is brilliant: a fabulous and evocative singer who manages to convey Carole’s essential ordinariness, her teenage awkwardness, her love for music and her sadness over the end of her marriage. With a less capable performer in the leading role, the production might be a very ordinary one, but Brayben’s presence makes it truly memorable.
Snippets of performances by the groups who originally performed King’s songs – such as The Drifters and The Shirelles – add spice to the piece and keep it lively. However, the moments when Brayben sings as Carole – even when it’s just her and a piano – are the most spine-tingling in the whole show.
Even if you’ve never heard of Carole King, and so long as you don’t mind the fact that this is yet another jukebox show, it’s certainly worth a visit.