The New Wimbledon Theatre was absolutely packed for the first night of this short run of a musical previously staged on Broadway and the West End. Your reviewer arrived late – not the only culprit – but the very helpful and friendly theatre staff managed to find him a seat, and he was soon enjoying an excellent show. The rest of the audience were clearly enjoying it too. Virtually every song was greeted with loud applause.
When a composer or performer has a back catalogue of great popular songs, any musical devoted to them is likely to be a winner. This winning formula is currently packing them in with the life of Tina Turner, and a while back there was a very successful show featuring the oeuvre of Burt Bacharach. What people really want is the songs. The life of the singer or composer is incidental – really just a way of presenting the songs in chronological order. That said, the (friendly?) rivalry between the songwriting teams of Carole King & Gerry Goffin and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil carries this show along nicely, with plenty of humour to alleviate the stresses and strains of their romantic relationships.
The work of both teams is featured, not just that of Carole King and her husband, and it is remarkable how many great songs were produced to order under the constant pressure of the Tin Pan Alley hit-making machine as it was in the Fifties and Sixties, personified here by the impresario, Donnie Kirshner. It has been said that the constraints of a genre do not bind genius and mediocrity in equal chains, and there is more of the former than the latter on display as we follow the musical career of Carole King from 1958, when she was only 16, through to the landmark album, Tapestry, in 1971, and beyond.
What the audience really loved about this show, however, was the songs and the way they were put across. Although she later started performing her own songs, Carole King wrote primarily for other artists, and we have here some great performances by the cast, most convincingly impersonating popular artists of the time such as the Drifters, the Shirelles, Little Eva and the Righteous Brothers. A word must be said too about the choreography, which is delightful, and about the band, which is excellent. There are only a few days left in which to catch this show at Wimbledon. It is well worth a trip to the end of the District Line!