Theatre Review: Beautiful – The Carole King Musical at The Alhambra

Adding to the growing number of musical biopics, the Carole King musical finally begins its UK tour, stopping at The Alhambra where Leo Owen caught the show

Written by Douglas McGraith, Beautiful takes its name from a Carole King song which epitomises her character and is a commentary on her own low body confidence. McGraith favours a neat cyclic structure, opening with King finally making it big as a solo artist before travelling back through time to show the events leading up to this moment; it’s more of a jukebox musical than full biopic, solely focusing on her rise to fame.

Derek McLane’s purple 60s’ set design roots the play’s timeframe as King (Bronte Barbé) halts a piano solo only to break the fourth wall and share her internal monologue: “I grew up in Brookyln… and now guys Carnegie Hall!” McLane’s set features moving platforms and segments to physically transport King back in time to reflect on her journey to the top.

As a sixteen-year-old, King fights against her single mother’s love of classical and quickly confounds sexist beliefs that “girls don’t write music [but] teach it.” King however, very early on limits herself to a writer rather than a performer, critically assessing herself as “[having] the right amount of body – just not organised right.” McGraith cleverly depicts the “hit making factory” ethos of the time by having five different acts play in turn who freeze-frame when not performing. It is in this money- obsessed environment that King, at 16, sells her first song.

From early successes, King goes on to meet her husband and future writing partner Gerry (Kane Oliver Parry) and soon artists like The Drifters are playing their songs. From here on, McGraith’s scene structure is a tad formulaic as we repeatedly see Gerry and Carole write/trial songs together only for these to be performed in full, complete with cheesy back-lighting and over-the-top backing vocals. There’s a fabulous rendition of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers (Grant McConvey, Ben Morris); a moving reprise of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”; an emotional “It’s too Late”; a warm group performance of “You’ve Got a Friend” and belting vocals from Barbé while making a studio recording of “Natural Woman”.

While it’s hard to criticise the show, those who like watching an underdog’s rise to fame may think Carole’s success came easily, despite her marital struggles. Avid fans of King may also notice a lot of the most fascinating segments of her life are inexplicably cut from the musical, despite fitting the show’s timeline. It’s also interesting to note McGraith’s unusual focus on Carole’s friends and rival writing partners, Cynthia (Amy Ellen Richardson) and Barry (Matthew Gonsalves).

Beautiful’s first act has a sugary high energy pop feel that contrasts with its more mature second, clearly emulating King’s move into adulthood. It’s like watching a high budget 60s’ tribute concert but is genuinely funny and Barbé is mesmerising to watch. A well-justified standing ovation for an all strong cast and phenomenal lead performance from a relatively fresh performer closes the show, followed by a feel-good encore medley sending us on our merry way.

Beautiful showed 5-16 September 2017 before continuing to Leeds Grand May-June 2018: