"Who's that?" asks Carole. "That's Gerry Goffin" answers whoever's on exposition duty. (It varies.) Douglas McGrath's book doesn't do subtlety; it just gets on with naming the names and teeing up the hits in a whistle-stop tour through the life and work of not one but four great American songsmiths.
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical is blest that three of its protagonists are still alive (the fourth, King's ex-husband Gerry Goffin, died only recently but had attended the show's Broadway opening) and it was a special moment when Carole King herself, joined by her lifelong friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil who wrote "On Broadway" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling", took a bow. But that blessing is also the show's curse, because Beautiful is way too respectful towards its living subjects. Wait a few decades and perhaps some future dramatist will come up with a less antiseptic, more dramatically grounded musical about Goffin and King.
For now, what we have is a collection of great songs linked by fragments of safe biography. Visually it's no great shakes: Derek McLane's glitzy set is amorphous and utilitarian (as are a few of the supporting performances) and it needs a bit of muck under its fingernails to drag it into the 21st century. As it is, Beautiful feels so much more old-fashioned than its material.
The show is saved from ignominy – and how – by a star-making central performance by Katie Brayben. Fresh from a supporting role in Charles III, this human powerhouse lives and breathes her character at a level no one else in the company even approaches. However meagre the dialogue, however overfamiliar the song, her delivery is truthful and inhabited. At every stage of King's story, from "It Might as Well Rain Until September" until "You've Got a Friend", Brayben grows as her character grows.
Alan Morrissey puts in a solid shift as Goffin but never scratches below the troubled man's surface, while Lorna Want and Ian McIntosh are hardly challenged at all as Mann and Weil since McGrath and the director, Marc Bruni, have reduced them to secondary comic support (think Oklahoma! with Ado Annie and Will Parker), although McIntosh does get to sing a gritty solo rendition of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place".
Whatever fate may hold in store for Beautiful, the songs will endure long after the musical's been forgotten. "Up on the Roof", "The Locomotion" (a lovely performance by Lucy St. Louis), "Natural Woman"… If Matt Smith's ten-piece band had been located onstage rather than in the pit this music would have sizzled in the limelight. As it is, only the more rudimentary and plot-integrated song stagings really hit the spot; Bruni and choreographer Josh Prince's synthetic recreations of performances by The Drifters and The Shirelles feel more like unfortunate parodies.