Book by Douglas McGrath
Aldwych Theatre, 49 Aldwych, London WC2B 4DF
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
A top class US creative team, led by director Marc Bruni, have replicated their deserved Broadway success with Beautiful and simply added a very talented London cast. Katie Brayben (below) is a revelation in the title role. She goes beyond mere impersonation and brings an intelligence and sincerity to the character, which really delivers in the dramatic moments. Vocally she is simply astonishing.
It would be a mistake to dismiss Beautiful as just another jukebox show. Yes, we have had far too many of these lately, but Douglas McGrath’s well judged book takes it in a new direction. He uses the Goffin and King songbook as the context for the personal story but the songs are never, mercifully, shoehorned into a narrative. Along the way we get a great insight too into the music business, at a time when it was really turning a corner.
Beautiful is essentially a portrait of an artist. The gawky, musically precocious, teenager from Brooklyn never really wanted to be a performer and yet it is astonishing to consider that she was churning out hits at the age of 16. This was down to the unique support she received from bosses and colleagues in New York’s famed hits factory the Brill Building. She and Goffin, who coupled up quite quickly, suddenly hit a seam of pure pop gold.
Her ordinariness always defined her however. For her, the dream was a house in the suburbs but this was never enough for the wayward, troubled Gerry Goffin, sensitively portrayed here by Alan Morrissey. He needed the kinetic energy of the city, with its late–night clubs and girls and drugs to make him feel more alive. That happy ending in the 'burbs was never going to happen. The story ends up therefore as Carole's 'romantic' education and her realisation, by the time of Tapestry, that she didn’t need to be an adjunct to a man. With Tapestry (an indulgence allowed only after shifting so many records) she crafted one of the greatest albums of all time, found her own voice and set a template for so many to follow.
Dramatically the challenge here was how to make a good ordinary person interesting. McGrath stirs the mix by running the Goffin–King story in parallel with the story of their close friends and competitors, the songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. From the outset Brill Building boss Donnie Kirshner (Gary Trainor) had set the couples in competition, demanding for example that they deliver overnight a new hit for The Shirelles. The Goffins won that one and that all night burst of creativity produced 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’. Although they were competitors the friendship between the two never waned and Lorna Want and Ian McIntosh give solid support here as another couple caught in this crazy maelstrom.
Bruni’s staging avoids too many 'eureka’ moments at the piano and he skilfully presents the songs emerging from their chrysalis before they get beefed up into full performances, cleverly choreographed by Josh Prince, in careful recreations of the original artists. We see the girl groups like The Shirelles (initially a bit snooty about 'Will You Still Love Me’ dismissing it as too country) and The Chiffons. We meet The Drifters and see how 'The Locomotion’ got started, turning the Goffin’s own babysitter into the overnight sensation called Little Eva. We also follow the trajectory of the great Mann/Weil songbook including their gigantic hit for the Righteous Brothers 'You’ve Lost That Lovin' Feeling'.
This show combines a gold–plated songbook with a story which has heart. It is a total triumph.