Katie Brayben's last stage role was as the ghost of Princess Diana in King Charles III. She's now elevated to the more substantial ranks of pop royalty as Carole King in this Tony Award-winning jukebox bio-musical.
The actress gives a wonderfully endearing performance that seems to soar beyond mere impersonation as it communicates King's warmth, modesty, self-deprecating humour, and touching integrity and projects the straight-from-the-heart candour of that nasal, husky, plaintively yearning singing voice.
The “ordinary girl, extraordinary talent” publicity mantra is winningly fleshed out by this portrayal in a piece that shows us King evolve from hired hit-maker for other singers to empowered “natural born woman” and solo artist of her own confessional material.
Constructed in the Jersey Boys mould by script writer Douglas McGrath, Beautiful begins at a peak career moment, with King centre stage at the piano in curly-maned Earth Mother mode, performing “So Far Away” from her 1971 Carnegie Hall concert. The bulk of the piece is a back-track along the emotionally bumpy road that led to this.
“I like your spirit, but I like a hit record even better” rasps producer Donnie Kirshner, when the precocious 16 year old Brooklyn kid pitches “It Might As Well Rain Until September” to him. Boy, is his preference gratified as Carole, in short order, teams up with “killer flirt” lyricist Gerry Goffin (attractive, volatile Alan Morrisey) , becomes pregnant and marries him, and starts churning out imperishable classics (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow? “Up On The Roof” et al) for top groups such as the Shirelles and the Drifters.
As if the cornucopia of one of the catchiest back-catalogues in the pop canon weren't enough, this likeable, zestfully performed show also has the advantage of other evergreens (“You've Lost That Loving Feeling”, “On Broadway”) by friendly rivals, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil whose wisecracking but less complicated partnership (engagingly handled by Ian McIntosh and Lorna Want) serves as a foil to the increasingly troubled central marriage.
It feels to me, though, that McGrath's book and Marc Bruni's production, staged on a design the gives the offices at the Brill Building the droll look of a glitzy battery farm, are happiest when treating the Fifties and the early Sixties with a tongue-in-cheek wit. There are the deliberately shameless song set-ups (the one for “Locomotion” with new babysitter Little Eva now holds the land speed record) and the amusingly straight-faced transitions from impassioned piano try-outs to the overblown sleek of full performance.
But the deficiencies of the jukebox genre – the fact that there's too little time for sustained drama – become much more apparent latterly when Carole's dreams of a fulfilling marriage in the suburbs are dashed because of Gerry's bipolar mood-swings, shabby philandering and paranoia about the fresh breed of singer-songwriter.
It says a great deal for the depth of Brayben's performance that she can, nonetheless, give you a real tear-jerking sense of how far King has had come to earn the right to sing the jubilant titular song at the inspiring finale.
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