Theatre reviews: Beautiful – The Carole King Musical | Legally Blonde

Elle Woods as Lucie Jones
Elle Woods as Lucie Jones
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PERHAPS only those who were young in 1971 have any idea of the colossal impact of Carole King’s solo album Tapestry, released that year. It seemed that almost everyone had a copy; and in songs like It’s Too Late, I Feel The Earth Move, and Tapestry itself, we somehow heard the voice of our generation, earthy, honest, questioning, moving on from the exuberant pop of the early Sixties towards something more contemplative and rebellious.

Playhouse, Edinburgh **** | Festival Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Bronte Barbe portrays the gifted musician and songwriter

Bronte Barbe portrays the gifted musician and songwriter

So one of the great joys of Douglas McGrath’s script for the Carole King tribute musical Beautiful is its powerful sense of Tapestry not as the beginning of a brilliant solo career, but as the culmination of an astonishing journey through pop that began in 1958, when King, a gawky but gifted teenager from Brooklyn, first began – with the lyricist Gerry Goffin, whom she married at only 17 –to sell their songs to Don Kirshner’s legendary music factory at 1650 Broadway, producing hits that ranged from It Might As Well Rain Until September to the classic Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.

As a piece of theatre, Marc Bruni’s touring production has its ups and downs. In the leading role, Bronte Barbe portrays the young Carole as an awkward, frumpy little figure, when in fact she was always a good-looking woman with a rich voice completely unlike Barbe’s; and the show never quite captures the sheer cultural significance of Tapestry itself, as a sequence of songs. Yet it tells a gripping human story with real feeling, and some hugely enjoyable Sixties showbiz moments; and it also gives Amy Ellen Richardson and Matthew Gonsalves space to act up a storm as Carole and Gerry’s witty songwriting rivals Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, whose great Righteous Brothers hit You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling comes close to stealing the show.

At the Festival Theatre, meanwhile, the current touring production of Legally Blonde offers an even more explicitly feminist twist on recent American social history. Based on the 2001 film, the musical famously tells the story of how an apparently air-headed California valley blonde called Elle goes to Harvard Law School, and eventually becomes a seriously brilliant lawyer, without ever giving up on her right to wear pink at all times.

On Wednesday night, star Lucie Jones was replaced in the leading role by Edinburgh girl Rebecca Stenhouse, who normally plays one of Elle’s girlfriends. Yet no-one in Anthony Williams’s brilliantly energetic and witty production missed a beat, in delivering the show’s whip-smart and often hilarious text and songs by Heather Hach, Laurence O’Keeffe and Nell Benjamin; and although the tunes are instantly forgettable, the show itself delivers a radical and exuberant message about young women can define and empower themselves, while still having more fun than seems entirely possible, in just three hours of theatre.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Beautiful - The Carole King Musical is at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, final performances today; His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, 23-27 January, King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 13-17 February. Legally Blonde is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today; King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 23-28 April, His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, 30 April-4 May.