In theatrical terms, there are few things more exquisite than a perfectly cast musical, where people don’t just look right for the role but can act, sing and dance precisely as the demands of the score and book require. Where talent and skill is the criteria, not anything else. These days, it happens rarely that casts of musicals, particularly new musicals, boast such a cast. But when it happens, it is quite intoxicating. Beautiful, in fact.
Now playing at the Aldwych Theatre is Beautiful : The Carole King Musical. With a book by Douglas McGrath and featuring songs from King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, this gorgeous celebration of the collaborations of those four songwriters and their lives is an unqualified delight. The original Broadway production, which won two Tony awards, opened on 12 January and is still running strong.
As much as that production was terrific, this West End incarnation is better and stronger in every way.
One notable advantage this production has over the Broadway production is its venue. The gorgeous and more intimate interior of the Aldwych provides a warm, nostalgic framework for the piece and suits it perfectly. Somehow the sets and costumes feel more at home, more evocative in this grand old theatre.
The throbbing, majestic and luminous heart of this production comes from Katie Brayben’s faultless, radiant and absolutely triumphant turn as Carole King. Brayben recreates the feel, the sound, the look of Carole King in a completely authentic and resonant way – she feels like the natural woman.
Especially good is the way Brayben tracks the development of King’s skills as a writer and performer, eloquently indicating the self-doubt and uncertainty which sat alongside her undeniable composing (both lyrics and music) skills. Her confidence grows as the story unfolds; finely calibrated and perfectly executed, Brayben gives a performance of incredible detail.
Her singing is quite sensational. Raw and tentative when it needs to be, shot through with deeply felt pain at key points, and then triumphant, relaxed and poised in the Carnegie Hall scenes. It is simply wonderful to hear Brayben smash out of the park numbers like One Fine Day, It’s Too Late, A Natural Woman and the title song, Beautiful. Brayben captures the essence of Carole King’s unique style completely, astoundingly.
She acts superbly, confidently, giving a completely focused and engaging performance which brims with vitality, hope and determination. The real bonds between her King and her King’s circle are clearly, vividly drawn, utterly real. Generous and commanding, Brayben’s performance as King is astonishingly good in every way. She is a West End star – no question. Spine tingling, heart-breaking and incredibly joyous. When the Awards season ticks around next year, Brayben will be real competition for Imelda Staunton’s Mama Rose.
Alan Morrissey gives Brayben terrific support as the nervy, pervy, unfaithful love of King’s life, Goffin. Tall, handsome and twitchy, he delivers a pitch-perfect performance, every little detail of which is finely judged: the twisting of his wedding ring, the nervous disposition, the sense of claustrophobic nausea, the ease with which he seduces other women, the (failed) attempt to be a better person, the facial twitching. It’s a wonderfully complete performance and the result is that Morrissey makes clear why King was prepared to put up with Goffin’s infidelities.
Vocally he excels, even though he does not get as much scope to sing as the other main characters, and his duet with Brayben, Take Good Care Of My Baby is a delight. Immensely likeable but fatally flawed, Morrissey’s Goffin is quite terrific.
Although it’s called Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, the story is equally concerned with Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, collaborators who were rivals to and best friends with King and Goffin. The tale of their music and their love contrasts with and harmonises with King’s story. Lorna Want is sassy, sexy and unfeasibly pert as Weil, lighting up every moment in which she appears. She sings with purity and power, producing a sound which is lush and lusty. And she is very funny, battery acid sharp. Her delivery of Happy Days Are Here Again is pure joy, as is the moment when she realises she does want to marry her Mann.
Ian McIntosh is a sheer delight as that Mann, the cute hypochondriac with a ready line in catchy tunes and snappy banter. Tall, slightly gangly, but with a winning smile and fresh, good looks, McIntosh is nerdy and assured in equal measure. He conveys his total commitment to Weil with consummate ease. He has a thumpingly good voice and Walking In The Rain (with Weil) and We Gotta Get Out Of This Place were true highlights in an evening with no low points.
Gary Trainor is drier than James Bond’s martini as the wily recording Supremo, Don Kirschner. Sardonic and sly, but not malicious or unfeeling, he exemplifies the business part of show business in a very human way. And his small part in the quartet, You’ve Got A Friend, with Brayben, Want and McIntosh, is as warm and happy as it is funny.
As King’s mother, the always poised, but raging-against-her-husband Genie, Glynis Barber is a surprise treat. She captures the languid rage and tight control aspects of the character as well as she masters the very specific accent. She is funny too, and stylish in every way.
Together, these six performers are an unbeatable combination, each bringing insight and clarity to the story of King, her friends and their music. They are not alone, however: the ensemble assembled here is sizzling with talent.
Vivien Carter is in terrific form as Marilyn Wald, the singer championed by King but with whom Goffin has an affair. The scene where King discovers the affair could have been nothing from Wald’s perspective, but Carter makes every second count with the result that the scene fizzes with tension. Her singing is full of power too – Pleasant Valley Sunday in particular. Joanna Woodward’s Betty is pitch-perfect and there is excellent character work from Dylan Turner across a range of roles, including a funny Neil Sedaka and a chilled Nick. Lucy St Louis is fabulous as the babysitter who takes the Locomotion to the world as Little Eva, as is Tanisha L. Spring, a powerhouse of energy and full throttle vocals as Janelle.
Danielle Steers, Tanya Nicole-Edwards, Jay Perry, Terel Nugent, Oliver Lidert and Fela Lufadeju complete the cast, each singing with panache and style, playing multiple characters, dancing effortlessly and with period nuance and feel, and all, each and every one, always nothing but exactly right. They are all individuals too, with their own look and feel; no sausage factory of ‘right look’ nonsense here. Talent, lots of it, in all shapes, sizes and modes. Just wonderful to see.
Marc Bruni directs the production with real flair and charm. It never flags, bouncing along from one sensational hit to another, with jokes, trauma and triumph along the way. Josh Prince’s choreography is sparkling, alive with rhythm and the pulse of time long gone. Derek McLane’s set works easily and, together with Alejo Vietti’s terrific costume designs and Peter Kaczorowski’s splendid lighting, the palette of colours and locations in which the story can be told proves a rich tapestry. Very fitting.
Everything about the production seems fresher, lovelier and livelier than on Broadway. It’s a feast for eyes and ears and, when it is done, the feeling of elation is irresistible. I can count on one hand the number of musicals which have tempted me to dance along with the final tune, after the bows, but this show is another. And at its heart is the phenomenal Katie Brayben.
This is the kind of musical one can see every week and not regret spending the time or money in so doing. Fundamentally fabulous and perfectly executed.