NEW YORK (AP) — Broadway’s “The Neil Diamond Musical: A Beautiful Noise” has some interesting cocktails on offer, and it might not be such a bad idea to order a sweet clementine or cracklin’ rosé before heading to yours Seat. Just something to help smear one of the most enigmatic jukebox musicals in years.
The show, which opened at the Broadhurst Theater on Sunday, is a rather depressing journey through Diamond’s life, offering a respectful and, yes, fully authorized portrait that is unnecessarily boastful – ’40 top 40 hits; 120 million albums sold,” we’re told — as well as positively cringey.
The conceit is that an elderly Diamond reluctantly undergoes therapy to find out why he’s such a sad sack. (“It’s officially torture,” he snarls — not the best way to start a musical.) A Diamond songbook with lyrics offered by his psychologist offers a time travel to key moments in his life, like “Sweet Caroline,” “Song Sung Blue”, “America” and “Cracklin’ Rosie”.
That’s when an amazing Will Swenson as a young Diamond digs deep to deliver a portrait of a tormented artist as a young man dripping in lamé and sequins. Swenson is insanely great on every number, elevating superficial material and even playing a mean guitar. “How are we tonight, Broadway?” he asks. We’ll eat out of your hand, sir.
But here’s the first problem: The older Diamond (Mark Jacoby) STAYS on stage in a leather chair and looks glum during some very exciting musical numbers throughout the two hour show. He and his therapist just hang around like unwanted house guests for most of the show. It’s gonna be really scary. Maybe they deserve the cocktails?
Other bizarre decisions hit you fast, like why 10 dancers emerged from Diamond’s chair to act as a deranged chorus, why set designer David Rockwell left two dozen random dining room lights hanging at different heights, and why choreographer Steven Hoggett left from an early age is moves to over-the-top Vegas choreography with no coherence.
We go through the days when Diamond wrote hit after hit for others – “I’m a Believer” for The Monkees, “Red Red Wine” for UB40 – but he has little confidence. “You’re too good,” he was told. “Nobody cares about me,” he says. A club owner calls him “Hamlet”, probably because he’s sad? (Has anyone here read Hamlet?)
The backbone of the story is Diamond’s rise to international fame and fortune – greater than Elvis, he tells us – despite his determined inability to be happy while plowing through three marriages and having multiple children. Loneliness as a child is identified as a possible cause late in life, in the agonizing final minutes where you could hear a pin drop as he bared his soul and then was immediately washed out in several brash songs – “Sweet Caroline” in a predictable one Repeat – and a nonsensical drop of confetti.
Anthony McCarten’s book is clearly overly respectful – Diamond’s terrible film acting choices, for example, are quickly glossed over – and Michael Mayer’s direction never manages to reconcile the sadness with the highs. Diamond’s main line isn’t his music but his romantic relationships, and it’s hard to cheer up a rich man leaving a 25-year second marriage.
Some of the songs are beautifully presented, like “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” a duet between Diamond and his second wife, and a gospel-tinged “Holly Holy,” but others aren’t: “Forever in Blue Jeans,” is a Mess, sung by Mrs #2 (Robyn Hurder) and choreographed with random dancers scampering across the stage doing their own thing as if in a busy train station. Also, forget about an awkward duet between Diamond’s first and second wife.
It all seems to culminate in a single song, a psychoanalytic breakthrough hidden in plain sight: “I Am… I Said” with lyrics about a frog who became king. This song apparently solves everything. Shouldn’t the musical be called “Forever in Blue Genes”?
Audience participation is encouraged, and there are points where the show becomes a sing-along when it devolves into pure pandering. “A Beautiful Noise” knows who its aging audience is, and it gives them what they came for, complete with a Khrushchev joke. For the rest of us, there are always cocktails.
Mark Kennedy is there http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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