The pop music written by teenagers Carole King and Gerry Goffin contribute heavily to the great American songbook as it applies to number 1 hit records, and here we are treated to a parade of them, alongside songs by another pair of talented Brill Building songwriters, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
A cynic might question the prominence of such songs as ‘On Broadway’, ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ and ‘We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place’ when they have nothing strictly to do with King, but in shaping the story of her rise to fame from humble Jewish beginnings (with Diane Keen playing the archetypal ambitious Momma) through to bubblegum songwriting, difficult marriage, and eventual breakthrough as a solo performer, this show delivers.
We first meet ‘Carole’ on the stage of Carnegie Hall, where she is about to perform her Tapestry album. On the night we saw the show, understudy Joanna Woodward was playing the lead, and despite a dodgy wig or two, she is very good indeed at both putting across the songs and the situations in which the songwriter finds herself. Her lack of piano playing ability is well disguised (there’s a small but hardworking band in the pit to drive things along), and her delivery of ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’, to pick just one, is excellent.
The ensemble don’t disappoint either: Alan Morrissey as Goffin, weak with women but talented with words; tough cookie with the soft centre, Cynthia, played by Lorna Want; hypocondriac Barry, played by Ian McIntosh; and on the night we were there, understudy David O’Mahony as Don Kirshner. Gavin Alex is an hilarious Neil Sedaka, and a powerfully voiced Bobby Hatfield (not Bill Medley, as the programme claims). Matt Nalton has fun in a variety of roles, and ever-extending hair. And The Drifters (as portrayed by Dom Hartley-Harris, Leo Ihenacho, Earl R Perkins, Jay Perry) put across the classic hits of the Rudy Lewis-led era with some style.
I love the music of this era, so could appreciate both the rough versions sung by ‘Carole and Gerry’ or ‘Cynthia and Barry’ just as much as the full versions depicting The Sherelles, The Chiffons (with the fictional Janelle on lead vocals). There are inaccuracies here, from the idea that Carole’s first song sale at sixteen was ‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’, to Goffin’s affairs with ‘Janelle’ and ‘Marilyn’, to the very idea that it is so easy to write a song that it is done in one take (just as it was done in the Hollywood films about classical composers).
That being said, this is a very good show which manages to be both fun and an emotional powerhouse, with moments which will make you smile and others which might start a lump in the throat (the aforementioned ‘Natural Woman’).