BEAUTIFUL is “filled with the songs you remember – and a story you’ll never forget”, says Nik Briggs, director and producer of York Stage’s York premiere of The Carole King Musical.
Put another way, there are songs you know but may not know they are by Brooklyn-born Carole, whose story stayed in the background, much like Carole herself did until moving centre stage with Tapestry, before Douglas McGrath wrote the book for the musical. Tony and Grammy awards have ensued.
Leeds Grand Theatre played host to the first British tour in June 2018, and now Briggs delivers a sparkling York production every note as enjoyable, as lushly musical and, typical of Briggs, visually impactful too, with a wonderful lead performance by Grace Lancaster, a York-raised triple threat of singer, musician and actress.
McGrath’s book does not reveal the full tapestry – King’s flop 1970 debut album, Writer, is as absent as James Taylor – but it wholly captures the spirit, courage and resilience of her constant creativity that blossomed as a teenager, told here with warmth, wit and charm, pathos too, and bursts of frank Jewish humour in her exchanges with her wise, if cautious mother, Genie Klein (Sandy Nicholson, perfect casting), a Manhattan teacher who would prefer her daughter to follow that career path too.
Bookended by Carole’s celebrated performance at Carnegie Hall, with Lancaster at the grand piano, Beautiful’s storyline opens with ordinary schoolgirl Carole Klein writing incessantly at 16, landing her first songwriting deal with Donnie Kirshner (an urbane Bryan Bounds) as Carole King.
Utilising cast members for scenery moves, Beautiful cracks on in a whirl, much like Carole’s songwriting success. She meets lyricist and putative playwright Gerry Goffin (Frankie Bounds), her fellow teen, and is pregnant and married at 17. What a productive partnership!
The hits keep piling up from their Kirshner-administered songwriting factory for the likes of The Drifters (Faisal Khodabukus, Christopher Knight, Munya Mswaka and Baz Zakeri) and The Shirelles( Cyanne Unamba Oparah, Maria Ghurbal, Nicole Kilama and Lauren Charlton-Matthews, who also plays Janelle Woods). Delightful performances all round.
Even their babysitter (Kilama’s Little Eva) hits the chart peak with The Loco-Motion – and everyone’s doing The Loco-Motion in black and white in the show’s best ensemble choreography by Danielle Mullan-Hill.
Unlike too many jukebox musicals, McGrath’s script does more than link the songs, telling the story behind them with breezy dialogue, yet giving due space to life-changing events, as the story moves between recording studio, record company offices, the home and the concert hall.
If Beautiful underplays the ugly side of the story, the restless, unfaithful Goffin’s straying from the happy-at-home Carole, Frankie Bounds (in his Marlon Brando white vest) seeks to invest the role with more darkness of the soul. He is no pantomime villain, even though one stage entry is greeted with a boo from one voice in the dress circle at Saturday’s matinee.
For contrast with the brooding Bounds’s increasingly troubled Goffin and the downward spiral of the Goffin-King marriage, the friendly rivalry at Kirshner’s 1650 Broadway building with fellow songwriting partners Barry Mann (Alex Hogg) and Cynthia Weil (Harriet Yorke) is depicted with lightness and plenty of laughter, as they progress, step by slower-than-Gerry and-Carole step to a number one hit (You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling) and wedding bells. Hogg’s somewhat hangdog, anxious Mann is ever humorous; Yorke’s Weil more spiky.
Throughout, Lancaster conquers York. What a talent! Leeds Conservatoire tutor by day, New York Brass Band saxophonist and clarinet player by night, she has polished up her piano playing too to complement her delightful singing voice, as uplifting and moving as King’s, especially on Tapestry’s songs from the broken heart.
From precociously gifted yet demure teenager, to diligent young mother, to solo singer-songwriter, embracing the spotlight at last after such hurt, Lancaster evokes all facets of the King character. Her renditions of It’s Too Late and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman are the crowning glory for King and Lancaster alike.
You will feel the earth move, thanks not only to Lancaster, but also to Briggs’s potent direction, full of drama, emotion and humour, to go with his snappy, snazzy costumes and Phoebe Kilvington’s hair and make-up, propelled by the fabulous playing of Stephen Hackshaw’s band, always in view at the back.
Tickets for Tuesday to Saturday’s 7.30pm evening performances and Saturday’s 2.30pm matinee are on sale at atgtickets.com/york.