“I can't watch my life like this,” Carole King told her daughter and manager Sherry Kondor after reluctantly attending an early reading of Beautiful, long before it reached Broadway. But 73 year-old King herself turned up at the opening night of this West End transfer, afterwards taking to the stage to thank the “spectacular” cast for this “wonderful gift” before singing, in the flesh, her 1971 chart-topper You've Got a Friend.
So why did she initially recoil from this good but not great tribute musical, which belts out a selection of her many greatest hits? Perhaps because Douglas McGrath's book is pure panegyric, and the humble, sweetly courteous character we see portrayed on stage (excellently by Katie Brayben) felt uncomfortable about all the fuss being made about her. Don't come here expecting a warts and all account of King's life along the lines of the Kinks' Sunny Afternoon musical playing a few streets away; this version of her life story barely scratches the surface and gives us the (sanitised) basics we need to know in order to string the hits together coherently.
But this better-than-average jukebox musical is all about the songs, and as such it is a success. Beautiful is a massive money-spinner on Broadway and will be here too. The songs sound super, mostly, and – crucially – convey King's songwriting genius. Tracks from The Loco-Motion to Will You Love Me Tomorrow to the final Beautiful will have you simultaneously sighing with pleasure and stamping your foot in time with the rhythm. Katie Brayben's voice was brilliant 80% of the time; the rest she sounded a bit strained. The supporting backing singers and actors do their jobs as professionally as you'd expect in a production of this calibre. Another tick: this musical gives us some insight (albeit limited) into how the songs actually came into being.
However, surprisingly in a musical all about Carole King, half the songs on show are not by her. They are mostly by King's rivals in music and best friends (according to this version) Barry Mann (Ian McIntosh) and Cynthia Weil (Lorna Want), prominent characters in this story and authors of such smash hits as He's Sure The Boy I Love, Walking in the Rain and We Gotta Get Out of This Place. I understand why Mann and Weil are given such attention in King's musical, as their stories are intertwined, but it's still a brave decision. For each of their (admittedly awesome) songs included, we get to hear one fewer of King's, which is a shame.
The scraps of King's life we are presented with – especially her professional partnership and failed marriage with Gerry Goffin (Alan Morrissey) – left me wanting more. Still, as an undemanding, enjoyable introduction to this singer-songwriting legend and one-woman hit factory, beautiful more than satisfies.