“A Beautiful Noise” is certainly an efficient delivery system for twenty-nine of Neil Diamond’s most popular songs – some of them just snippets in medleys, but “Sweet Caroline” twice — rendered by some talented performers. (See a Spotify of the cast album below.)
The show apparently aspires, however, to be more than just your basic boomer bio jukebox musical, judging by the team they brought on board: as co-producer and co-orchestrator, Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons (the group that was the subject of “Jersey Boys”); and as writer of the book, Anthony McCarten, whose play “The Collaboration” about Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, is opening on Broadway later this month, and whose screenplays about such diverse figures as Stephen Hawking (“The Theory of Everything”), Winston Churchill (“The Darkest Hour”) and Freddie Mercury (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) resulted in Oscar wins for each of the actors who portrayed them (Eddie Redmayne, Gary Oldman, and Rami Malek, respectively.)
Neil Diamond, perhaps needless to say, is no Winston Churchill, but certainly he must be at least as interesting in real life as Carole King, with whom he shares much in common: They are both prolific and popular octogenarian singer-songwriters who grew up Jewish in Brooklyn. Yet I found “A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical” less engaging than “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” Maybe it’s just a matter of taste, and not only in music. I couldn’t get past all the sequins.
McCarten splits his lead character in two – there is Neil Diamond Now (Mark Jacoby) and Neil Diamond Then, or Young Neil (Will Swenson), and the show is constructed around Neil Now’s sessions with his therapist, to whom he was sent by his third wife Katie because “apparently, I’m hard to live with these days.”
Neil (Jacoby) is a reluctant patient, as we see in some quick amusing scenes that launch the show, so his therapist (Linda Powell) buys “The Complete Lyrics of Neil Diamond”
“Oh Jesus, it’s heavy,” she says. “I mean, a seriously huge number of songs here.”
“39 albums,” he replies tersely.
“’40 Top 40 Hits. 120 million albums sold,’” she reads in the book. “Wow. So,” she ventures. “I thought we might go through some of the songs, the ones that are most meaningful to you personally…”
“My god,” he groans.
But he eventually relents, and the two of them stay on the stage through many of the scenes that unfold in the life and career of Young Neil (Swenson), sometimes cleverly hooked to specific songs from the lyric book, starting with his first big break as a songwriter, after seven years of trying: “I’m a Believer,” for the Monkees. This is thanks to hitmaker Ellie Greenwich (Bri Sudia) who takes him under her wing and pushes him to start performing his own songs (“Nobody out there right now sounds the way you do. Gravel wrapped in velvet.”)
It is at his first gig performing, at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, that he meets Marcia (Robyn Hurder), whom he finds is helpful in getting him through what he calls his “clouds,” what others call the blues (they sing “Song Sung Blue” together.) He and Marcia fall in love, causing a breakup of his marriage to first wife Jaye (Jessie Fisher), and the song “Love On The Rocks” (which works well as a theater song.)
Neil then tells his doctor about “the biggest mistake of my life,” signing a contract with Bang Records which, Neil tells us, is run in association with mobsters, and we see Young Neil being threatened by one Tommy O’Rourke aka Thomas Camino (Michael McCormick) Neil wants out of his contract, not apparently because the man is a mobster, but because Bang Records reneged on their promise to release a specific song as a single; they don’t think it has commercial potential, so will only agree to put it on his next album. Tommy doesn’t want him to leave, but the more sensible Bert (Tom Alan Robbins) makes a deal with Neil: Give them a big hit, and they’ll let him out of his contract.
We then watch Young Neil struggle in a run-down motel in Memphis, when he suddenly comes up with“Sweet Caroline” – which the show presents as if it arrived as a miracle from God.
That ends Act I.
In Act II, he’s become a rock god – as new wife Marcia puts it: “I saw it in you, first time I saw this mildly introverted man in black sing at the Bitter End…that inside him lurked the stage-melting-record-breaking-soul- shaking rock god you just set free!”
Or as old Neil tells his therapist: “Biggest box office draw in the world, ahead of Elvis Presley, can you imagine? The King.”
“’King,’” the therapist says, meaningfully. “There’s that word again. And what did that lead to?”
“Well,” Neil answers, “more sequins.”
Indeed. What follows is one blasting and blinding rock number after another, with Neil in a series of Elvis-like jumpsuits – one black, one white, one red – all covered in sequins.
Neil’s huge success, big bucks and constant touring destroy his second marriage, and don’t do wonders for me either.
The problem with the framing device of the therapist is that it sets up expectations for some big breakthrough – a Rosebud a la Citizen Kane – which, lets just say, are not met, although the attempt does lead to stirring renditions of “Shilo” and “I Am…I Said.”
I know many people worked hard to put together “A Beautiful Noise” — not least a large beautiful ensemble.(see video below) I’m not immune to the tunefulness of many of the songs. I’ll admit that after the show ended, I could not keep one of the melodies out of my head. But the show also prompted me to remember something that I had forgotten. Immediately after the COVID-19 lockdown began, there was a rash of coronavirus parody videos, with amateur musicians performing famous pop songs with newly created pandemic related lyrics. Neil Diamond was the only famous professional musician I know of who did a video spoofing his own song. He sat in front of his fireplace, wearing an old sweater, black baseball cap and short white beard, strumming an acoustic guitar, and began with the actual, highly relevant lyrics –
Where it began, I can’t begin to knowing
But then I know it’s growing strong
But then he switched them up to
Hands, washing hands
Reaching out, don’t touch me, I won’t touch you…
This was the Neil Diamond, a witty, low-key, generous old man, whom I would have loved to have seen more of on stage – and whom I glimpsed in Mark Jacoby’s sequin-less performance, the highlight of “A Beautiful Noise” for me, whether or not for anybody else.
A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
Tickets: $84.50 to $318.50
Music by Neil Diamond
Book written by Anthony McCarten
Directed by Michael Mayer
Choreographed by Steven Hoggett
Scenic design by David rockwell, costumes by Emilio Sosa, lighting by Kevin Adams, sound design by Jessica Paz, hair and wig design by Luc Verschuseren
Music supervision and arrangements by Sonny Paladino, , incidental music and dance music arrangements by Brian Usifer, vocal design by AnnMarie Milazzo, and orchestrations by Bob Gaudio, Sonny Paladino, and Brian Usifer
Cast: Will Swenson as Neil Diamond – Then, Robyn Hurder as second wife Marcia, Mark Jacoby as Neil Diamond – Now, Linda Powell as Doctor, Jordan Dobson, Paige Faure, Jessie Fisher as Jaye Posner first wife, Kalonjee Gallimore, Alex Hairston, Jess LeProtto, Tatiana Lofton, Michael McCormick as Paul Colby and Tommy O’Rourke, Aaron James McKenzie, Mary Page Nance, Tom Alan Robbins as Bert Berns and Kieve Diamond, Max Sangerman, Mimi Scardulla, Bri Sudia as Ellie Greenwich and Rose Diamond