What’s not easy is singing as Carole King when you aren’t Carole King. The audience doesn’t want an impersonation that reminds them they can just listen to Tapestry later at home, but they want the actress to still sound like Carole. The actress thus needs to evoke her but not imitate, and has to bring something unique to the performance and elevate it above mere copying. Jessie Mueller did this on Broadway perfectly, and (I begrudgingly admit (just because Kelli O’Hara when is it your turn)) deserved her Tony.
It’s difficult to mar such an easy, prepackaged-to-succeed show, so of course “Beautiful” is virtually unharmed by this. But save for one exception, the cast was uniformly a notch below what it should have been. I really don’t like taking personal shots, but the casting really was the unfortunate aspect of this show (and of so many shows I’ve seen here). (Are the best people just already in NYC? Do they need me to do casting here?) Like I said, Brayben’s acting was wonderful, her Brooklyn accent and youthful mannerisms without fault, but her singing as Carole was lacking. But that wasn’t even the most upsetting to me. In telling the tale of Carole’s early years of songwriting success and persona life hardship, “Beautiful” relies on two of Carole’s best friends to provide comic relief as well as plot forwarding: Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. On Broadway, Anika Larson and Jarrod Spector were freaking off the charts perfect in mining their lines for every possible bit of hilarity and in singing their songs like their lives were on the line. Superb. Here, not so much. Lorna Want (so, yes, people are still named Lorna) treated Cynthia seemingly with kid gloves, being too British and prim instead of ballsy and ball-busting and awesome, as Cynthia should be. One of my favorite parts of the show, of any show maybe, is our introduction to Cynthia: her audition for Donny’s studio to the tune of “Happy Days Are Here Again”. In this song, we learn that Cynthia is really smart, really daring, brave, audacious, and, yes, a total ball-buster. She also has to command attention, get it, and make you feel grateful for giving her your attention. It’s an important little part that seems like it’s merely funny. Anika Larson got that and it was amazing. Lorna, not so much. Her method of commanding attention and demonstrating that her personality couldn’t be contained to the room was to…lightly tap her toes along to the music. Maybe that’s the choreographer’s or the director’s fault, but still. She didn’t own her big moment, and the rest was downhill from there. That Lorna also won an Olivier is more of a commentary on this year’s weak offerings than of her performance being award-worthy. I hope Anika doesn’t think anything of it.
Equally necessary in “Beautiful” is a scene-stealing Barry Mann. Jarrod Spector, famous for being the longest-running Frankie Valley in “Jersey Boys” (so he has that super strong falsetto), was so funny, so lovable, and so freaking strong that it’s almost not fair that anyone would have to follow him in this role. Barry is obviously Jewish, not only in name but in personality, like stereotypically. He’s a hypochondriac to the extreme, and he’s nebbishy and often immature, but adorable. You have to laugh with him and love him. Unfortunately, I don’t really think they know how to do “fun-Jewish” here in Britain. At least not like how they know in NYC! Ian McIntosh is a strong singer, but his Barry was lacking in personality. Like, he had none. He didn’t grip you or reel you in. It was just like, oh he seems nice. Byeeeee. It’s a shame because, for being a real person, Barry Mann is such a freaking fun character. I bet this was also a casting/directing problem because do they even know how to do Jewish here? Considering that Barry and Cynthia are an integral duo in the show, when one of them is weak, it’s a problem for their dynamic. When both are weak, it’s a problem for the show.
More disappointment in the ensemble! The Righteous Brothers, who are supposed to give a show-stopping performance of Mann/Weil’s “You Lost That Loving Feeling”, were…not good. My companion to the show was most disappointed with this performance. It’s a lot to live up to the original, but come on, this is the West End. You’re supposed to be able to find the kind of talent we expect. Equally subpar were the ensemble voices composing The Drifters and The Shirelles. Listen, all of these people are of course super talented. It’s just that they were miscast in playing these roles. The lead Drifters singer, at least in the early numbers (they switched around leads I think), had to change some of the melody, bringing some low parts up and some high parts down, because they weren’t in his range. Um. Excuse me. Cast someone with the proper range maybe?? The lead Shirelle (again, at least for their first number, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”; they switched the parts around) had a really strangely deep, slow voice. It was off-putting when she spoke (as Donny’s secretary) and much nicer when she sang, but it still was not right for The Shirelles, one of the most popular and successful girl groups of all time. There was no energy in these performances, not in the way we needed. Argha bargha.
The exception that I noted above, the one performance of the lot that was actually more than I expected, was Alan Morrissey as Gerry Goffin. On Broadway, Gerry’s portrayer Jake Epstein was the only one of the four mains to not get a Tony nomination. It was unfortunate, because Epstein was very good, but in a packed category Spector clearly outshone him. Unfortunately, Olivier voters seemed to think that those Tony noms were meant to be followed and that Mann was just the more ‘award-worthy’ role, which is definitely not the case, and sadly they followed the same pattern here, nominating the three other mains but not Morrissey, whom I think was the most deserving. His Gerry hit me more emotionally than it did on Broadway, and I really felt for him in his later scenes. His performance was sometimes crushing, often moving, and overall splendid. What he brought to what many consider a thankless role (given how Gerry is the only character sort-of approaching ‘villain’ territory) was special. It’s a shame he didn’t get the recognition that his less deserving comrades did.
On this repeat viewing, I noticed a couple of things I never noticed on Broadway. For one, the strip poker scene is suuuupes awkward. Oh man. It is perfect at showing us that Carole was quite prudish and straight-laced, and that it really bothered her husband, but damn it’s awkward. It will be a fantastic scene in the movie version, I bet, but onstage it’s kind of weird? Like, Carole has old-lady hair throughout most of her twenties. We don’t need extra scenes to tell us that she wasn’t cool.
Also, did the Broadway audience ever laugh at The Drifters? When they first appear for “Some Kind of Wonderful”, the audience was laughing. Like, everyone. Hard. At first I thought it was just because they were doing cutesy old-fashioned boy band dance moves (rightly so), but that doesn’t seem like enough of an excuse, because the UK did have and does have boy bands that do similar non-hilarious moves (hello, 1D). Was my audience just super racist or something?!
Aside from the lack of Carole King in Carole King’s singing, the failure to make our two comedic characters anything resembling comedic, the lowered quality in our ensemble performances, and oh a lack of overall cohesion, “Beautiful” is still, remarkably, a lovely, pleasant, enjoyable show in the West End. I didn’t realize before how good the book is, especially for a jukebox musical. Despite all this production’s shortcomings, it’s still pretty much a success, which proves the strength of the show, the inability to really tarnish it no matter how hard people try, and of course the appeal and splendor of Carole King’s music. Her music is what it’s really about, and that’s why it’s still worth seeing, even though, well, all of the above.
AUDIENCE: (Oh I’ve decided that, as I judge the water service and bathrooms in my restaurant reviews, my entertainment reviews will from now on judge the audience. Yebop.) There was much less old-lady singing around me than on Broadway (thank the LORD), but more cell phones. PEOPLE. TURN THEM OFF. There was also a lotttttt of (the expected) whispering along the lines of “Oh! Husband/wife! Remember when we first heard this song when we were sharing a cherry phosphate at the soda fountain when I wore my pink poodle skirt and we held hands for the first time? This song and this show it’s all about us and I think it’s important for the entire audience to know that we have a memory of hearing this song before in our lives!” Shut up.