Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 4, 2022
A Beautiful Noise. Book by Anthony McCarten. Music and lyrics by Neil Diamond. Directed by Michael Mayer. Music supervision and arrangements by Sonny Paladino. Choreography by Steven Hoggett. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Emilio Sosa. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Jessica Paz. Hair, wig, and makeup design by Luc Verschueren. Vocal designer AnnMarie Milazzo. Incidental music and dance music arrangements by Brian Usifer Orchestrations by Bob Gaudio, Sonny Paladino, and Brian Usifer. Associate director Austin Regan. Associate choreographer Yasmine Lee. Illusion consultant Jamie Harrison. Music coordinator John Miller.
Yes, it's another jukebox musical, but, thankfully, they are not all produced from the same mold. At least this one mostly manages to duck the inspired-by-Wikipedia biographical fill that serves as the book for far too many of the genre. A Beautiful Noise has a book by Anthony McCarten, who has a track record with celebrity bios, having penned the script for the Freddie Mercury film Bohemian Rhapsody and the upcoming I Wanna Dance, about Whitney Houston. He also wrote The Collaboration, a play about the artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, which is now in previews and soon to open on Broadway as well.
For A Beautiful Noise, McCarten has provided a cleverly crafted framing device: a series of sessions between a psychologist (Linda Powell) and her patient, an older man who is there at the urging of his wife in order to come to terms with what have become debilitating inner demons. That man is Neil Diamond, referred to in the program as "Neil - Now" and splendidly performed by Mark Jacoby. The pair, doctor and patient, remain on stage for much of the performance, even as "Neil - Then" (Swenson) takes us through Diamond's long career, from songwriter at the Brill Building to non-stop global performer.
It all works better than it might sound, thanks to a lot of creative staging, singing and acting. The resemblance, including vocally, between Jacoby and Swenson is strong enough to make you fully accept that they are playing the same character, and the juxtaposition of the older and younger Neils makes for a pretty effective dramatic touch, certainly more so than, say, the use of multiple Chers and Donna Summers in the jukeboxers about those performers.
If you are familiar at all with the Brill Building, you'll know it is famous for its music industry offices and song studios. It was also an important setting for one of the more successful jukebox musicals to hit the scene, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which ran on Broadway from 2014 to 2019 and garnered two Tonys, two Drama Desk Awards, and a Grammy Award. Don't be surprised if A Beautiful Noise picks up at least some major nominations, especially when it comes to Will Swenson, who lights up the stage with his own personality while embodying "Neil - Then" in style, voice, and even that not-quite-a-full-smile look on Diamond's face in performance.
The show's two acts, running about an hour each with a 15-minute intermission in between, present Diamond in two distinct lights. My personal preference is for Act I, where we watch the singer/songwriter getting started in the business. At the Brill Building, he hooks up with producer Ellie Greenwich (a witty Bri Sudia, who, since Greenwich herself was also a singer, gets to show off her vocal chops in character). As a writer, Diamond has a breakthrough with "I'm A Believer," a huge hit for the Monkees and his first gold record. We also see him perform the seemingly autobiographical song "Solitary Man" at the Bitter End, the Village folk club, a scene that unexpectedly brought me hurling back to my own teenage years when I haunted such venues.
Then again, if you prefer the stuff that jukebox musicals are known for, big splashy production numbers that put the lead character in the center of an arena stage setting, hang around for Act II. A rush of theatrical fog pours over the edge of the stage and out into the audience, and then Neil appears, reinvented, as it notes in the script, as "The Jewish Elvis," shaggy-haired and clothed in one of the many Emilio Sosa's glittery outfits he will wear. The song is "Brother Love," which Swenson delivers as a sort of mix of rock star and TV evangelist. Joining him are the backup singers, a group referred to as "The Beautiful Noise," who do a wonderful job throughout performing Sonny Paladino's original arrangements.
It is all designed to get the audience to go nuts, as if we were actually in attendance at a Neil Diamond concert. Yet it also makes sense within the therapist/patient frame, where we begin to understand what it is that drove Diamond to be out on the road, across the country, and across the globe for much of his career. It quieted the demons and fed an emptiness he'd felt from childhood, even at the cost of destroying his first two marriages in the process.
It also helps a great deal to have such a solid cast, of whom I would especially single out Robyn Hurder as Marcia Murphey, Diamond's second wife and the one most heavily featured in A Beautiful Noise. Hurder, a Tony nominee for her performance as Nini in Moulin Rouge! on Broadway, shines both in performing the role of Murphey and strutting her stuff in "Forever in Blue Jeans" and in her duet with Swenson, "You Don't Bring Me Flowers."
There are a few elements to the production I personally found to be off-putting: repeating in Act II some bits of stage magic that were effective in Act I (so why repeat them?); stopping the show to have characters basically address the audience with factoids like, "40 Top 40 hits. 120 million albums sold"; and that annoying fog (and, later, streamers) dumped on us (a lot of that going on in Broadway shows lately!). But, overall, I was surprised to find myself won over. And whatever else you might say about Neil Diamond, he certainly had a way with a catchy tune. For instance, I'm guessing I can plant an earworm in your head just by saying the words, "Sweet Caroline."