Review: Beautiful at Liverpool Empire ****
Before bands and solo artists started to write their own music – before the Beatles basically – they relied on the prodigious output from a series of ‘hit factories’ populated by talented composers and lyricists.
Two of the most talented, and prolific, were the prodigal husband-and-wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King…until Goffin vacated himself both from the marriage and the partnership, leaving King to carry on alone.
So it’s hardly surprising that nearly every one of the songs in this jukebox musical celebration of King’s life and career is a classic, from It Might As Well Rain Until September (which she wrote as a gawky, ambitious 16-year-old in Brooklyn) to the brilliance of her 1971 solo album Tapestry, in which she literally found her own voice.
Molly-Grace Cutler is hugely likeable in the role of the real-life songstress, playing King with riveting verve and energy and with an uncanny impersonation of her singular vocal delivery too.
Cutler, some of you may recall, played Val in Ian Salmon’s Girls Don’t Play Guitars at the Royal Court in 2019. Then, of course, she did indeed play guitar. But while she does pick up the instrument here too, mostly she is content to absolutely storm it at the piano.
Her King is so sunny and talented - yet also vulnerable - that you can’t help but root for her from the start.
It’s a tougher gig for Tom Milner, who last appeared on the Empire stage as Johnny in American Idiot. His Goffin is tormented by inner demons, but then so badly behaved towards his partner and the mother of his children that at the start of the final scene the opening night audience actually booed him. Job well done.
Molly-Grace Cutler as Carole King and Tom Milner as Gerry Goffin. Top: Molly-Grace Cutler at the piano
Their intense creative and personal relationship is given light relief by Claire Greenway as King's mother Genie, and Seren Sandham-Davies and Joe Slovick who play equally youthful sparring songwriting rivals Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann with evident glee.
While you might not be able to name as many Weil-Mann numbers as Goffin-King, they produced hits like On Broadway, Saturday Night at the Movies, We Gotta Get Out of This Place and You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.
Visually, this is decidedly lo-fi storytelling – Frankie Bradshaw’s set, based around a rudimentary recording studio, is little more than a series of moveable walls and a piano on casters.
But aurally, it’s a musical extravaganza, with a decade or so of King’s life from late 50s to 1971 interspersed with performances of her songs either by Cutler and/or Milner, or one of the ‘artists’ Goffin and King wrote for, all backed by the ensemble cast of talented actor-musicians on guitars, keys, trumpet, percussion, sax and clarinet.