A brand new tour of the Carole King musical Beautiful kicks off this week. Playing in the West End from 2015 to 2017, it has since been on two UK tours but this third tour is a bit different - it's the first time a very different production to the tried and tested one has been put on. But can it live up to the high standard set by the previous production?
In the spirit of honesty, I have to confess that Beautiful is one of my favourite musicals. I went into it blind in 2015, not knowing much about Carole King. I left that theatre such a fan of both Carole and the show, you will even find me on the DVD of her 2016 Hyde Park concert. Having seen the original show and the first tour multiple times, it is hard to review this production without making comparisons. With this review, I've tried to look at the show from both angles - imaging I had no prior knowledge of the show and looking at it as a separate entity, but my brain couldn't help but make comparisons when I was watching the show so I can't not talk about them a bit.
Beautiful is a jukebox musical that tells the story of Carole King, starting off as a songwriter and becoming a household name singer in her own right. Bookended by her Carnegie Hall concert in 1971, the story is told from 1958 until that point in time following the release of her acclaimed album 'Tapestry'. The musical chronicles the relationship with Carole and her writing partner and husband Gerry Goffin as well as their friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. The four of them are responsible for so many classic and well loved songs, you will regularly find yourself surprised at all the songs featured in the show that were created by them.
Directed by Nikolai Foster, this production comes with a twist as the actors on stage play their own instruments throughout. While seeing characters suddenly move to another side to pick up an instrument for a scene they have no business being in may seem jarring at first, the sound that comes off of that stage by a bunch of incredibly talented performers can't help but leave you in awe.
Molly-Grace Cutler is quite simply incredible as Carole, demonstrating a stunning singing voice which, at times, is reminiscent of Carole herself. Utterly charismatic and a fantastic actress, she is a joy to watch. Tom Milner channels the tortured genius of Gerry Goffin perfectly showing off a gorgeous singing voice to boot. Seren Sandham-Davies is captivating as Cynthia Weil while Jos Slovick is a standout as Barry, providing a vocal highlight of the evening with his rendition of 'We Gotta Get Out Of This Place'.
A 'Made At Curve' production, the casting is every bit as amazing as you would come to expect from one of their productions. The entire cast give their all to the show with Garry Robson a highlight as Donnie Kirshner and Kemi Clarke, Myles Miller and Kevin Yates simply wonderful as The Drifters.
As previously mentioned, the songs featured in Beautiful are as timeless as it gets, with 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow', '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman' and 'You've Got A Friend' barely scratching the surface. The use of the actors playing the instruments bring the songs to life in a way like they've never been before. Orchestrated by Steve Sidwell and adapted by Sarah Travis, some of the new arrangements are quite noticeably different with the new arrangement of 'Up On The Roof' providing a gorgeous highlight and a drastically different but potentially even better 'Walking In The Rain'.
Set design by Frankie Bradshaw is quite different to what you would have seen before at Beautiful and while there are some great scene transitions, the stage can often feel too sparse and like it doesn't quite fit on the Curves large stage, with noticeably empty space either side of the main action though this is improved with fantastic lighting design from Ben Cracknell bringing the stage to life amplifying the intensity in key moments. Costume design from Edd Lindley is gorgeous to watch with The Drifters getting some fabulous new suits, while new choreography from Leah Hill sees The Shirelles get their own Dreamgirls moment while the performances from The Drifters are far more varied than they have been before in this show. Not everything quite works though with the new staging for 'The Locomotion' complete with roller skates lacking something the feelgood number previously boasted - the bizarre use of a video camera prop felt redundant without a video projection to go alongside it and meant the number crossed the line from cheesy to tacky, providing a disappointing lowlight in the show.
While I appreciated how bold it was to make such drastic changes, they have varied degrees of success with some of the elements that made the original production so special getting lost somehow. The actors playing their own instruments may have provided fantastic sound from the stage but it also had a negative impact in that it made the show feel more like a concert. This in turn meant the acting took more of a back seat and powerful moments that should have proved emotional didn't quite land with the same effect they were meant to. The final moment of 'One Fine Day' in act one which has proved infamous among theatre fans has been changed and now lacks the vulnerability which ensured you went into the interval feeling like your heart had been ripped out of your chest.
Beautiful is one of those shows which is just that - beautiful. Seeing it on a stage again felt incredibly special and the fact it was a brand new production made it feel exciting, making it fresh and new. While I wasn't a fan of all the changes, some of them actually managed to improve on the original. When you strip all of that back, what remains is a sesnational show full of some of the greatest songs ever written. The greatest element of this production are the incredibly talented cast that have been assembled to perform it. While it may not be the best version of this show I've seen, it's still wonderful in its own right.
Beautiful - The Carole King Musical is at Curve Leicester until March 12th before heading to Theatre Royal Bath 17 – 26 March, Theatre Royal Brighton 29 March – 2 April, Festival Theatre Edinburgh 5 – 9 April, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton 12 – 16 April, Newcastle Theatre Royal 19 – 23 April, Orchard Theatre Dartford 26 – 30 April, Malvern Theatres 3 -7 May, Cambridge Arts Theatre 10 – 21 May and New Theatre, Cardiff 24 – 28 May. Tickets from https://beautifulmusical.co.uk/tour/
Photos by Ellie Kurttz