HomeMisc.BroadwayBroadway Review: 'A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical'

Broadway Review: ‘A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical’

Will Swenson in A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical.
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

It’s likely that even people who don’t recognize the name Neil Diamond still know at least one of his songs. Whether it’s The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” or UB40’s cover of “Red Red Wine” or his own ubiquitous hit, “Sweet Caroline”, Diamond’s songs are undeniably part of the American songbook. So, it’s a no-brainer that his catchy songs would make their way to Broadway in the bright and brief A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical.

Directed by Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot) with a book by Anthony McCarten (who’s written for the screen with Oscar nominees like The Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody, but makes his Broadway debut here), it follows Diamond’s career as he goes from a successful songwriter with no stage presence to a world-famous performer whose tour earnings rival Elvis. While the show is predictably most fulfilling for Diamond’s longtime fans, it’s an undeniable crowd-pleaser for any audience member—just don’t expect to leave the show with any understanding of Neil Diamond as a real human being.

The show follows Diamond during two phases of his life. In the present, Mark Jacoby plays Neil in his twilight years, fighting tooth and nail with his therapist (Linda Powell) to avoid revealing anything about himself. Though Jacoby has to play Neil as a curmudgeon for much of the play, he and Powell have a good rapport, landing some solid jokes and delivering exposition while not dragging down the breakneck pacing. Though Jacoby eventually gets the show’s final emotional beat, it’s Will Swenson who brings past Neil from sad Brooklyn boy to superstar and he’s unfortunately the show’s weakest link.

Though McCarten’s book portrays Neil as someone who is unable to express his emotions outside of his songwriting, Swenson never transforms Neil from famous musician to flawed human being. Rather, he goes through the events of Diamond’s life with all the passion of reading a Wikipedia page. Admittedly, in some musical numbers, Swenson manages to connect directly with individual audience members, singling them out in the Broadhurst’s crowd in a way all good rock stars can. He even subtly modifies his singing voice to sound more like Diamond by trading his belting power for Diamond’s wavering rasp. However, beyond those fleeting moments, it’s only thanks to the production design and the energetic ensemble that A Beautiful Noise manages to be such a crowd-pleaser.

Emilio Sosa’s costumes are colorful and distinct, perfectly establishing time and place while also telling us about the characters when McCarten’s book fails to. The capris and decidedly suburban look of Neil’s first wife Jaye (Jessie Fisher) mark the couple for divorce just as much as the sexier costumes of Neil’s second wife, Marcia (Robyn Hurder), foreshadow their eventual affair. David Rockwell’s stage designs are minimal, but evocative: a faux Hockney swimming pool painting suggests Neil and Marcia’s Hollywood years while a dingy couch suggests the Memphis motel room where divine inspiration gave Neil the tune for “Sweet Caroline.” Best of all, though, is Steven Hoggett’s choreography, modern and athletic and performed with undeniable joy and skill by the ensemble. Indeed, the ensemble may be the show’s highlight thanks to eye-catching performances by members like Jess LeProtto or Tatiana Lofton, in her Broadway debut.

However, while the production design and ensemble keep the show exciting, it’s the women who populate Neil’s life who keep A Beautiful Noise from totally falling apart—a minor miracle considering how underwritten their characters are. Though Bri Sudia (also in her Broadway debut) nearly walks away with the whole show as the record producer who discovers Neil, the character is still little more than an archetype of a ball-busting business woman. Fisher fares far worse, existing almost solely as the stereotypical famous man’s expendable first wife if not for the fact she gets the play’s second best emotional scene (and McCarten’s most clever writing trick), when present day Neil’s attempt to brush over the divorce is thwarted when it’s replayed a second time, with all it’s painful emotions intact. Neil’s third wife Katie, who is ostensibly responsible for the whole play, as she pushed Neil into therapy, doesn’t even appear in the flesh. While it certainly wouldn’t be novel for an adaptation of a famous man’s life to relegate the women he knew to little more than caricatures, it’s especially egregious here because McCarten’s book essentially relies on those characters to create the play’s emotional arc.

Robyn Hurder in A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical.
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Considering the play’s subject and its short runtime (each act is roughly an hour), it’s perhaps no surprise that the songs do the bulk of the emotional heavy-lifting. The problem is that because the Diamond character is so closed-off for much of the play, none of the songs quite fit into his arc. Rather, they stand as touchstones in his career success while the women in his life are left to express both their and Neil’s emotions for him. Hurder’s Marcia especially does that work, with songs like “Forever in Blue Jeans,” as her character is the play’s only other through line besides Neil himself. Even more crucial, Hurder is the play’s standout performer, delivering the charisma and talent you expect from Swenson as she struts and spins around the stage.

So, it’s perhaps no surprise that the show’s most effective marriage between book and music comes when an offhand reference to dinner with Barbra (Streisand) and “the Redfords” leads to Marcia and Neil marking the painful end of their relationship with “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”, which Diamond first sang with Streisand. Swenson may not quite have the presence to recreate Diamond’s appeal as a musician, but he does have good chemistry with Hudner and she has enough star power for the both of them to make that number land with the emotional gut-punch it deserves.

Speaking of the Streisand connection, though largely incidental to A Beautiful Noise, it almost feels like a cheeky Easter Egg for Broadway fans considering Mayer’s other current show: Funny Girl. As The New York Times’ Jesse Green noted in his reviews of both the Beanie Feldstein and Lea Michele versions of that show, Mayer’s staging desperately cries out for applause and the same is true with A Beautiful Noise. He even uses the same trick in both, firing streamer cannons to punch up the lull of Funny Girl‘s most inessential number, “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” and to punctuate the big “Sweet Caroline” sing-along during the curtain call. However, even with the multiple standing ovations Michele still garners in Funny Girl, the show never openly courts audience affection in the way A Beautiful Noise does so shamelessly.

Perhaps the most shocking moment comes at the end of the second act, the first time “Sweet Caroline” plays in full. As the song reaches its crescendo, the house lights suddenly illuminate the audience, giving them permission to sing along. On one hand, the moment gives the audience exactly what it wants. Many, no doubt, have already been singing along anyway, now they can do so with their whole chests. On the other, that moment emphasizes that A Beautiful Noise isn’t really theater, it’s a well-produced cover band concert built to exploit the audience’s nostalgia. And while that exploitation is certainly effective based on crowd reactions during a recent performance, it doesn’t quite excuse how thin the character work is. A Beautiful Noise certainly brings joy, but only briefly.

A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical is now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre. Click here for tickets.

Marisa Carpico
Marisa Carpico
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.

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