theater review

I Am, I Said (I Guess): A Beautiful Noise

Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Since you were wondering: Yes, they sing “Sweet Caroline” in A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical. Twice. First, at the end of Act One, as inspiration descends from the heavens upon a young Neil (Will Swenson) as he struggles to come up with a hit in a Memphis motel room, and then again during the curtain call, when the cast joins in and encourages the audience to sing along. Not that the audience wasn’t the first time around. I think it’s psychologically impossible for a large group of people not to sing along to “Sweet Caroline” — that Pavlovian “bah-bop-bop-bah” just gets you, whether at a bar or a baseball game or even a Broadway theater. In fact, if you can experience a dopamine hit from singing along to “Sweet Caroline” anywhere in America, why is this even happening in the Broadhurst at $299 per center-orchestra seat?

A Beautiful Noise is the latest in a run of bio-musicals about singers (extra credit if they’re singer-songwriters) that self-justify their existence by pointing out a robust back catalog. In the case of Diamond, you’ll see 29 of his numbers in your Playbill, listed alphabetically from “America” through “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” and you’ll also see the names of those songs printed on the marquee, and even around the proscenium arch. The message seems to be: Have no fear — if you tire of the plot, please know that the songs you recognize will be coming soon. It’s like riding a sepia-toned inner tube along a lazy river of ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s hits — expect the familiar, and little turbulence.

The arc of Diamond’s onstage narrative will be familiar if you’ve seen other musicals of this genre, rendered in predictable form in the book by Anthony McCarten (of Bohemian Rhapsody and the upcoming Whitney Houston biopic — estates love him!). After a childhood in Flatbush, which the book first elides and then later loops back to, he gets his start as a songwriter, writing “I’m a Believer” for the Monkees, before going out on his own with performances at the Bitter End. (At some point, all the bio-musicals where the heroes take meetings at the Brill Building should cross over in some Avengers-style event, where Diamond meets up with Carole King and Ellie Greenwich in the hallway.) He signs a predatory contract with Bang! Records, barely scrapes out of it thanks to “Sweet Caroline,” and then is reborn in the second act as a feathered-haired-and-sequin-spangled rock god. Along the way, there are the familiar stumbling blocks of collapsing relationships — notably, cheating on his first wife, Jaye Posner (Jessie Fisher), with his future second wife, Marcia Murphy (Robyn Hurder) — and woes of a workaholic who won’t let himself spend much time away from the road. In the second act, Hurder sings “Forever in Blue Jeans” while slithering through one of choreographer Steven Hogett’s more complex dance sequences. See, she wishes he was back home with her, in the blue jeans she’s currently wearing.

The element of McCarten’s book that makes it stand out, slightly, from the typical fare is … therapy. The whole experience is framed by conversations between an older Neil (Mark Jacoby) and his psychologist (Linda Powell), who is pressuring him to open up by way of analyzing the lyrics to his own songs. Jacoby and Powell sit in armchairs on either side of the stage, and occasionally stay there during the flashbacks to young Neil (Will Swenson) performing, in a Drowsy Chaperone sort of arrangement. There’s poignancy to seeing a cloistered, depressive man like Diamond try to articulate how metaphorical storm clouds descend upon him whenever he’s not onstage, leading him to sabotage his personal life. But because the focus here is really on the hits, there’s only so deep these analyses can go. After that “Forever in Blue Jeans” sequence, Diamond’s shrink interjects, “So. Wonderful wife. Great kids. Raining money. World tours.” What did that lead to? Well, Neil responds, “more sequins,” and then we segue into “Soolaimon.”

Watching somebody else’s therapy sessions is a little like hearing them describe their dreams: You’re happy that they’ve made some discoveries, but you’re not sure you need the whole process. In this case, you also want Neil’s therapist to challenge him a bit more, to say, “hold off on a song, and, say, tell me more about what it was like for Neil from Flatbush to adopt a persona akin to a Jewish Elvis.” Or you want the therapy thing done away with entirely, and for the musical to just swing right into schlock. (More sequins!) Instead, there’s an awkward tonal divide, as director Michael Mayer has to find a way to seesaw between introspection and spectacle, and Hoggett’s choreography has the ensemble shimmy through scene transitions in bell-bottoms as if the doctor’s office also houses a sit-in. As the younger Neil, the strapping Swenson perhaps too much resembles a high-school quarterback, but he gives a solid rendering of Diamond’s vocal timbre (“gravel wrapped in velvet,” Ellie Greenwich calls it in the show), and does his best to bring a wrinkled brow to the scenes of Diamond’s angst. The thing is, there’s just not much of a show there. The show and the audience aren’t here for the storm clouds, they’re here for the good times, which never seemed so good (so good! So good!).

There’s a touching note in the Playbill from Diamond himself, in which he says that he hadn’t seriously considered making a bio-show until his ability to tour was cut short by Parkinson’s disease. “My heart and soul would tour until the day I die if only my body would cooperate,” he writes. The musical he might be happiest with would be merely another stop — just a concert, really. Maybe he’d want something like London’s ABBA Voyage, where holograms stand in as the band members in their glory days. Leave the story by the wayside, assemble a tribute band, and just revel in the familiar, the way Beatlemania did. It seems a waste of good actors to do the jobs that holograms could.

A Beautiful Noise is at the Broadhurst Theatre.

I Am, I Said (I Guess): A Beautiful Noise