Simplicity, honesty and depth: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is an astonishing show of female talent in a welcome spin on the Jukebox musical.
Beautiful is billed as ‘the untold story’ of Carole King’s journey from songwriter to the stars to singer songwriter extraordinaire. You would be entirely mistaken to think of this as simply another jukebox musical; instead, it is a biography told through the medium which underpinned King’s life: music. In a theatrical landscape full of high-concept productions, this is joyful in its simplicity of approach and brilliant execution. The story is one we all know (and have probably sat through too many times to count): ordinary girl realises talent and overcomes boundaries to become extraordinary star.
Cassidy Jackson as Carole is truly exceptional; she conveys a depth of character found rarely in commercial musical theatre. Her transition from teenager to young woman is brilliantly observed and she has clearly studied the mannerisms of the real King to a tee. She brings great humour and heart wrenching vulnerability to create an entirely relatable character that defies the trope of diva usually associated with big-voiced females (and what a big voice she has!). Lorna Want as Cynthia, Carol’s song writing friend and rival, is played with great panache and spot on comic timing, whilst never straying into the zone of caricature. Both women’s vocal performances stand out in a very strong singing cast, and Jackson’s ovation is entirely deserved.
Gerry (Matthew Seden Young) is comedically arrogant and Ian (Barry Mann) nails his lines as an obsessive hypochondriac. However, the male leads – the women’s songwriting and romantic partners – fall a little flat. Are the male characters underwritten, or do their performances seem a little one dimensional in comparison with the women? It strikes me as a bit of both, but whilst it’s slightly depressing to acknowledge, I for one can’t help but welcome the emphasis on complex female characters, still relatively rarely portrayed in this kind of environment.
A small ensemble makes a great impact with some very powerful vocal performances and enjoyably comic moments. Josh Prince’s choreography treads precisely the right line between poking fun at the styles of the era and evoking the spirit of the original performers. The design is a superb achievement, and exactly what I would look for in a West End show. Both set (Derek Mclane) and lighting (Peter Kaczorowski) are visually thrilling and versatile without ever seeming intrusive; they adapt to subtly convey shifting spaces, eras and moods; they peak and trough to match the pacing and intensity of the action.
The production is not perfect. The script sticks in places and is particularly awkward when key narrative shifts are introduced. Across the entire cast, vocal quality is sometimes sacrificed in favour of stylistically mimicking the real-life act they are depicting, and the balance between these facets could have been better struck. The constant shifting from piano-based songwriting sequence to on-stage performance grows a little tired. Moments like this feel contrived and somewhat heavy handed.
But Beautiful is a breath of fresh air. It is a witty, heartfelt, female-powered production that surprises with its intelligence and depth. It is a shame that the script is patchy, however it is a very welcome spin on the somewhat exhausted jukebox musical, and one I would highly recommend.