The Mayflower and director Nikolai Foster's production of "Beautiful! The Carole King Musical" is a lively and uplifting celebration of the singer-songwriter's life and work, featuring terrific performances across the board and enough inventive, dazzling production design to leave you feeling merry
The work of singer-songwriter Carole King contains some of the most well-known pop, rock and soul songs of the late 20th century and early 21st century. From “The Locomotion” to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, her songs have been prolific, and yet King herself as the songwriter behind such hits remains largely invisible to the public. This precisely is where Beautiful! The Carole King Musical steps in.
Beautiful! The Carole King Musical, as its name suggests, is a gleeful celebration not just of the numerous contributors behind some popular performances of her written songs, from the likes of the Righteous Brothers, or even music publisher Donnie Kirshner, as well as even her competitor-friends, but more importantly certifying her own role to the audience in the creation of her iconic and affecting music. A bio-musical charting her course from an ambitious, mother-defying youth into a blossoming self-assured woman, the musical takes us seamlessly through the late 1950s up until her Carnegie Hall debut in the 1970s, with splendid period-relevant costumes to boot. Those familiar with King’s credits are already engaged and anticipating the music, naturally, but this is not at all to the disservice of those unfamiliar with her as the narrative is made accessible to all ages. While the demographic is clearly of an older crowd, Beautiful! never alienates potential younger viewers, especially in its opening first act which effortlessly makes King a relatable figure the instant she’s on stage.
The opening number of “So Far Away” sets up the tone and narrative arc very well, a thought to her gift and greatness that she hopes to actualize. Indeed, if there could be a phrase to succinctly describe Beautiful!, it would be its apt simplicity. As expected, there are the usual story beat trappings that come with the bio-musical, from the protagonist’s troubles of marriage and the blurring of personal and professional lives, yet it also manages to cut out the more tired tropes that attempt to raise the drama so closely associated with the genre. Beautiful! is assured of itself as a lighter, more cheerful affair, and we in tow are easily settled in and engaged. This is partially aided by the fact that it’s a jukebox musical, which seems to threaten to disconnect the viewer, but each song is cleverly chosen and integrated into the narrative in a way that involves you in the setting of the musical. One particular song, “You’ve Got a Friend”, is one such wonderful example, the song being impactful on its own merits but rendered more emotional in combination with the music. On the other side of these positives, the narrative does initially feel slightly repetitive with its formula of setting up the popular songs interspersed with tiny drips of personal drama. Even so, this is rather negligible in the grand scheme as your toe taps, especially as the second act greater manages to balance out the songs with the ongoing story.
Further helping this weakness out is the dazzling and inventive ways the songs are presented by director Nikolai Foster, catching your attention. Beautiful! The Carole King Musical originally debuted on Broadway, and on the surface, this looks to conflict with the smaller limited space of the Mayflower Theatre. Yet, this is actually to the musical’s and the theatre’s benefit, with the production crew requiring more creative ways to get across spectacle on a lesser budget compared to the likes expected on the West End to which it here succeeds. The use of lighting is surprising, with its array of colours and unique choice of angles brilliantly conveying locations and expressing the emotion and joy behind the songs in a way the low-key production design can not always necessarily provide. Even within the songs you individually may not be a fan of, Mayflower’s production of Beautiful! keeps you invested and desiring to dance along to King’s wonderful numbers. In addition, while there is limited dancing, mostly taking place in static positions as explicit song performances are being recorded (a big red sign saying ‘RECORDING’ as seen in recording studios ingeniously signifies the sudden world inhabited from song), the moments of movement showcases impressive dance skills and lend more energy; several set pieces being moved around adding dynamism to the stage. Again, apt simplicity is the key.
Nonetheless, this would all matter very little without making mention of the fantastic cast, who are plentiful. Molly-Grace Cutler undoubtedly shines in the lead of Carole King, with a singing voice that impresses more with each new song introduced. Tom Milner’s role as King’s husband, Gerry Coffin, also provides a solid connection, with the two’s chemistry helping better what would otherwise be fairly stock, unengaging drama into something tangible and real. Perhaps, though, the show-stealers belong to the roles of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann as played by Seren Sandham-Davies and Jos Slovick respectively, giving the musical its central comedic, and frequently hilarious, core. Both are great supports to the main lead, but they stand their ground in their own scenes, enhancing rather than distracting from the musical. Special shout-outs should also be made towards all of the backup groups who take command of the stage every moment they are given to dance and sing, and especially Garry Robson, a differently-abled actor whose presence is both uplifting to see for representation as well as in his portrayal of Donnie Kirshner as a charming, father-like figure for King. Most impressive from all the performances, however, are the typically difficult-to-get accents, who all across the board nail them and almost never falter.
Carole King would be proud of the Mayflower Theatre’s production of Beautiful! The Carole King Musical. The musical itself stands well on its own, being as much a showcase of her varied work as it is reinstating her image as the crucial writer behind songs that anyone, as most songwriter artists are unfortunately afflicted, would overlook. Even so, the Mayflower production team and cast seem to practically perfect her vision, with an extra flair of inventive choreography and lighting tying the bow. There’s loads of fun to be had, without discrimination or alienation towards younger ages. I’m feeling the earth move… maybe, to fix it, it’s best you go and see it?
Beautiful! The Carole King Musical is currently playing at Mayflower Theatre, Southampton from 12th April to 16th April. You can book tickets here.