Theatre Review: Beautiful: The Carole King Story, Empire Theatre, Liverpool
                          Image Source: ATG

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Comedy Drama
Date: May 1 2018
Location: Empire Theatre, Liverpool

At the beginning of this show, Carole King (Bronté Barbé) is about to perform in front of a huge audience in Carnegie Hall, and she openly questions what she is doing there. However, as the story unfolds, the question is not what she is doing there, but how she did not get there sooner.

For King has had a lifelong talent to sing, going back to her youngest days when performing with her mother (Genie Klein, played by Carol Royle), who recommends that she become a teacher instead. Ultimately, her talents continue to grow, and after some occasional performances alongside her friends within the music industry, she decides to give it a shot as a singer, and her success is almost immediate, bringing her to the grand stage and the massive accolades that her first-class vocals deserve. But while that may be the happy ending that Carole King fans will love to see play out, her journey is more complicated than that.

King is an introvert, someone who hides her true feelings due to a lack of confidence, while being someone who is easy to like and offers her full support right back. These mannerisms lead her to meet Gerry Goffin (Kane Oliver Parry), the typical high-school jock, while both are in college. They strike up a romance very quickly over their shared passion of music, but while both are excellent singers, it is their ability to create music that truly brings them together. Carole puts together the tunes, while Gerry writes the lyrics. After catching the attention of Don Kirshner (Adam Howden), a local music producer who demands high quality but also has a heart, the team of Carole and Gerry begin to make strides.

They are assigned the task of writing songs for the various acts that Don manages, from Neil Sedaka to The Drifters to The Shirelles. In the meantime, a friendly rivalry develops with the combo of Cynthia Weil (Amy Ellen Richardson) and Barry Mann (Matthew Gonslaves), as both are aiming to deliver a #1 that can not only reach the top of the Billboard 100, but can also set them up financially for years to come. After both sides come up with moderately-successful tunes, Carole and Gerry come up with the classic song Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. With some added orchestral background music, this becomes a huge hit for The Shirelles, and this along with further #1 tracks means that Carol and Gerry have officially made it.

However, it isn’t long after this that the cracks begin to form in not only the business partnership of Carol and Gerry, but also their relationship as a couple (the two quickly married upon Carol becoming pregnant at an early age, and a second daughter is born in later years). There is also tension between Cynthia and Barry, as Cynthia wishes for it to remain business despite them having romantic feelings and essentially being together, whereas Barry wants a commitment in the form of them living together and marrying.

This plot develops as the story goes on, but the bigger issues concern Carol and Gerry, and more than once, it seems like their bond will be brought to an abrupt end. Carol is such an understanding, forgiving person that her positive traits work to her detriment, and eventually she is faced with some very tough decisions, which will ultimately define the path she takes forward, and the potential success or lack thereof that the rest of her career may enjoy. Of course, there is also the possibility that she goes in a different direction while remaining in music. In some ways, the highlights she had enjoyed up until this point represent the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end.

The story is well-told, and it’s easy to follow these relationships develop and encounter some forks in the road. Bronté Barbé is superb and totally believable as Carole King, and her singing is absolutely outstanding, especially in the later stages of the show when the spotlight is totally on her. The rest of the cast are also very good; Kane Oliver Parry, Amy Ellen Richardson and Matthew Gonslaves all have their musical moments to shine, and any of those three could carry a musical on their own in the future if required. The show delivers a lot of comedy, with Gonslaves being key to the more humorous scenes due to his Barry Mann character being nice-but-dim (just like Tim); his heart is in the right place, but he often picks the wrong words to use, or simply emphasises his lack of attention and concentration, which along with Cynthia Well being a persona that is abrupt, honest and loud, yet also erratic and childish, ensure that there are plenty of laughs to be had amongst the more serious moments of the production.

The settings are authentic, from Don’s offices to Cynthia and Gerry’s new home in New Jersey. Props aren’t used very often, though the instruments that one would expect to see are here. Perhaps the secret to this show’s success is that, although Carole and friends are incredible singers, we get cameos from the established acts of the day who Don Kirshner represents. This includes Neil Sedaka, The Righteous Brothers, The Drifters and The Shirelles. Some of these are full-on renditions that are amongst the highlights of the night, whereas some are very brief appearances for comedy value (e.g. Carole and family watching Neil Sedaka perform on television as he sings “Oh Carol”). Either way, it enhances the value of the show, and in some respects it’s a spotlight on the American music scene of the 1960s as a whole, although the central thread is the connection that Carole and Gerry had to these all-time great performers.

I loved this show. The singing is as good as it gets, the story is easy to follow, there are plenty of memorable songs that will have you singing to yourself as you leave the theatre, and the quirky moments of humour do a fine job at carrying the show in between the classic hits. And of course, Carole’s story becomes one of an unlikely success, bringing smiles to faces as the production meets its climax. This is a great production (direct from Broadway and the West End), and I highly recommend anyone reading this to check it out during its run in Liverpool.

Overall Rating: 9/10 – Outstanding