Broadway: Neil Diamond Juke Box Musical “A Beautiful Noise” is a Big, Incoherent Mess
I am sad to report that there is very little salvageable in the new musical that opened last night about singer songwriter Neil Diamond called “A Beautiful Noise.” It is a not so beautiful mess.
Last night the best thing that happened at the opening was Diamond itself, fighting Parkinson’s Disease, leading the crowd at the Broadhurst Theater in “Sweet Caroline” from his aerie booth above the orchestra seating. Alas, he won’t be able to do that at every performance.
I felt bad for Neil. He had to witness this atrocious show that uses as a framing device him as an old man (played as a wan and unappealing depressive by Mark Jacoby) recalling his life with a useless shrink (Linda Powell) on stage. They sit in club chairs and review Diamond’s career without ever establishing who he is, why the audience is here, or what the heck is going on. And they sit there through the whole show! It’s a device so that Diamond’s songs can be woven into a very contrived kind of docu-script that mixes up the chronology of his real story, plays with facts like they’re toys, and leaves us with one dimensional characters.
So last night Diamond had to watch from his balcony seat as two Neil Diamonds fought each other on stage. One was this old man who whined about being depressed his whole life with three marriages and some unknown number of children. This Neil makes you want to kill if not yourself someone as he spends the whole evening feeling bad for himself while he claims to be rich, rich, rich. (The whole point of the musical, it seems, is that Neil Diamond became wildly wealthy. That’s his real achievement.)
The other Neil Diamond on stage is played by Will Swenson, who looks like Kurt Russell playing Elvis Presley. Swenson has got Diamond’s singing down, and he nails the more bombastic parts of the Neil Diamond who went Vegas in the mid 70s studded with sequins and Farrah Fawcett hair and never looked back. If only Swenson had more to work with, like an actual idea of Neil Diamond.
There were two Diamonds in real life, too. There was the cool Brill Building writer who gave us hits with the Monkees, and songs like “Solitary Man” and “Kentucky Woman” when he was on Bert Berns’s Bang label. Then Diamond moved to MCA Records’ Uni label and had a bunch of hits like “Cracklin Rose” and “Sweet Caroline,” a hit that was not a big deal when it was released but has turned into a singalong at Red Sox games for unknown reasons. He was so hot at Uni that Diamond was invited to introduce new labelmate Elton John at the Troubador in 1970. (That story is not included here.)
But this story has been inverted and perverted for “Beautiful Noise.” All the facts have been rearranged. Nothing makes sense or is historically correct. At Bang, Neil is confronted by Berns and a mobster with a gun. Maybe that happened, but Diamond’s time at Bang was over soon enough because Berns died after two years and Diamond moved on, first to Uni and then to Columbia Records. Here it seems like Berns– who wrote and produced a ton of classics — haunted Diamond forever and was a really bad guy. Not true. And Diamond’s really famous but cringeworthy projects — like his remake of “The Jazz Singer,” and his work on “Jonathan Livingston Seagull — are completely skipped.
But who cares what was true or false? Everything in “Beautiful Noise” is upside down. What’s worse is, there is no script. There is no book for this musical. We don’t learn anything about Neil Diamond’s early life until almost the end of the show, and even then it’s very cliched. All we really know is that he had three wives, and it seems like the third wife– who’s 30 years younger and he married a decade ago– dictated a toast to herself in the second act. I laughed out loud. The script also takes swipes at wife number 2, Marcia, mother of his children and to whom he was married for twenty five years. She’ll be thrilled.
“Beautiful Noise” also looks bad which is weird considering David Rockwell designed it. Lamps from the Sixties hang down from the sky, there are no sets except some Vegas set ups and vertical neon bars. When Neil and Marcia break up it’s on a bare set except for a fake looking David Hockney painting hanging in mid air. And don’t get me started on the surprisingly terrible choreography from the usually inventive Stephen Hoggett, or the regrettable musical arrangements. Eek, most of them are like
Up with People.
We’ve had a lot of these pop jukebox musicals in recent years, like successful ones for Michael Jackson, Cher, Motown, and Carole King. “Jersey Boys,” from the same producers as “Noise,” proved far more effective in its story telling. But this show has no plot, no characters, no drama, no laughs. It just exists for the songs, some of which are performed very well and others — like a Vegas “Tits and Ass” dance number from Marcia (Robyn Hurder, in an uphill battle)– which is just embarrassing.
On top of that the show punts at the end, not letting Swenson’s Neil Diamond have the big final moments, Instead those go to the old man who’s been sitting on the stage all night, which makes no sense whatsoever. It would help if this guy could sing or dance, but he can’t. Swenson, who’s been building to this big moment, is denied his shot.
One more thing about facts: famed singer songwriter Ellie Greenwich’s history is really screwed with this in this show. She wrote dozens of hits including “Leader of the Pack” and “River Deep Mountain High.” She was married to her songwriting partner Jeff Barry and they worked with Phil Spector. In this show she seems like Diamond’s manager, which she wasn’t. She discovered him and they worked together a bit. But Ellie Greenwich was such a big deal that there was 1984 musical just about her called “Leader of the Pack.” This show does her no favors.
I guess Neil Diamond fans will come to “Beautiful Noise” to sing along and see a tribute concert kind of show. But they’ll never learn where this nerdy Jewish kid came from, how he switched from singer songwriter to Elvis clone over night, what his songs meant, or what the chair was all about in “I Am…I Said.” When this show passes, I hope the cool Neil returns to his legacy, the one who plugged songs with Donnie Kirshner. (Actually, I still can’t believe there’s no nod to that period, when Neil crossed paths with Goffin and King, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, etc. )
“A Beautiful Noise” is truly a song sung blue.