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Review: Beautiful - The Carole King Musical at the Liverpool Empire ****

May 1, 2018

John Lennon reputedly wanted his songwriting partnership with Paul McCartney to emulate that of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s.

And the young American couple – married to both each other and the business – were certainly prolific hit-makers whose narrative lyrics and catchy tunes were a benchmark for quality in the 1960s.

It may be called the Carole King Musical, but Beautiful, visiting the Liverpool Empire on its inaugural UK tour, wouldn’t be the same without the input of the talented but emotionally flawed Goffin (played here by Kane Oliver Parry), and New York’s hard-working song-writing community.

Bronté Barbé delivers an impressive, expressive and emotion-laden central performance as King, the songwriting ingénue from Brooklyn who produces magical melodies but whose dreams of stability and suburbia are ultimately too stifling for her husband and writing partner.

She exudes radiance – both as an enthusiastic young songwriter, and later as a mature woman creating her own destiny, while in between her character bears the cares of the world on her tiny shoulders and through the songs she continues to write.

King’s real-life rise to fame and the trials and tribulations she encountered along the way are a story that doesn’t need much embroidering, although there’s been a little dramatic licence used to create a smooth narrative arc.

Matthew Gonsalves as Barry Mann and Amy Ellen Richardson as Cynthia Weil. Above: Bronté Barbé as Carole King. Photos by Craig Sugden

 

Goffin and King’s friendly rivals at 1650 Broadway, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil – the hugely entertaining Matthew Gonsalves and Amy Ellen Richardson - actually married in the early 60s for example rather than after many years of prevarication.

In between the agonies and ecstasies of life, these young partnerships created a slew of classic songs which feel as fresh and vibrant today as they did almost 60 years ago.

It’s an oddly emotional experience watching the birth of a song live on stage. And what songs! From It Might As Well Rain Until September to Pleasant Valley Sunday, Will You Love Me Tomorrow to Up On the Roof to One Fine Day.

King’s change of direction, with new cascading locks, a new city, and a new composing style, matured in to her seminal 1971 album Tapestry (surely a contender for an alternative show title), and Barbé relishes cutting loose, with a powerful and passionate (You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman, and a joyous finale of the life-affirming Beautiful.

Picky me might take issue with the delivery of Will You Love Me Tomorrow by the show's 'Shirelles' and the frustrating speed - or lack of it - of The Loco-motion.

But overall, it all adds up to some kind of wonderful.

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