Never have I seen a show as consumed with its own dourness as A Beautiful Noise, the new bio-musical about Neil Diamond that recently opened on Broadway. Directed by Michael Mayer, Noise can’t decide if it wants to reward die-hard Diamond fans for coming out or introduce him to new audiences who may have just stumbled in, and so the show that splits the difference down the middle, focusing less on the man as performing dynamo and more as a gloomy Gus whose music emerged from a place of deep pessimism. The Neil in Noise keeps mentioning the dark clouds hovering over his life – a life that includes decades of massive fame and wealth, and few obstacles not seemingly overcome in an instant. Watching the show, however, one might be quick to scoff. To paraphrase one of Diamond’s peers from the time his career first took off, he really doesn’t know clouds at all.
Part of the problem is that bio-musicals aren’t an inherently sustainable art form, forcing book writers to be creative, or at least rigidly experimental, with the structure they concoct to shoehorn in a lineup of songs that logically align. So book writer Anthony McCarten, narrative biographer du jour (he’s scripted The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody, all of which won the Best Actor Oscar for the men portraying their respective subjects, as well as the current Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody and another Broadway show, The Collaboration, about Jean-Michael Basquiat and Andy Warhol) has taken a conceit with high potential and given it a low yield: an older Neil Diamond (an excellent Mark Jacoby) sits with a therapist (Linda Powell). He’s grouchy, largely non-responsive, and is only there because his family has forced him to attend.
Unable to mine, um, diamond from a stone, his psychologist has turned to a collection of his song lyrics to try and evoke a contribution from him. The ploy works, and the sourpuss is soon narrating the events of his life and career in chronological order, with the younger version of himself (Will Swenson), acting and singing out his many hits with doctor and patient watching from the sidelines.
Schematically, McCarten’s book allows the musical to provide glimpses into Diamond’s life. The first act charts his attempts to hit it big as a singer-songwriter (including a fortuitous start at the Brill Building, an ill-planned contract with the mob-run Bang Records) and the second act lets us know the many problems wrought by celebrity and fortune (divorce, unending solipsism; this show is Beautiful if it moved beyond the 1970s to portray all of Carole King’s failed marriages), but there’s a deficit throughout the show: we never really know who Neil Diamond is. Noise never adequately puts Diamond’s greatest achievements – nearly four-decades of sold-out stadium tours and a sexy persona that rivaled Elvis Presley and Led Zeppelin, a ubiquitous career of songs that married simple lyrics with sophisticated musicianship, his attempts to cross over into film – in a larger context.
Furthermore, almost every aspect of Mayer’s production suffers from some sort of creative imbalance, from the ten-member ensemble that pops up to help punctuate various reflections Diamond has – choreographed by Stephen Hoggett, their writhing is more distracting than elucidating – to the late-in-the-game focus on Diamond’s Brooklyn Jewish upbringing to the anticlimax of Diamond’s in-therapy breakthrough that he is, well, okay being himself. Not only does McCarten’s self-satisfaction with the way he explicates “I Am…I Said” (there’s only so much analysis, Freudian, Jungian, or otherwise, to be wrung from “frog” and “king”) offer no actual revelation, it’s treated as an eleventh hour revelation; it’s his “Being Alive” or “Make Them Hear You.” And this placement makes Swenson, the show’s de facto lead, feel like a supporting player in his own show after doing the lion’s share of the work. (For his part, Swenson does a very capable job of simulating Diamond’s baritone and wearing Luc Verschueren’s wigs, but the production never lets him connect to the audience.)
Noise also fails to do justice to its music. While Swenson performs most of them – “America,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Play Me,” “Shiloh,” and of course, “Sweet Caroline” – diegetically, none of them really get a chance to resonate. When McCarten hands them off to another character, typically one of his Diamond’s estranged wives – Jaye (Jessie Fisher) sings “Love on the Rocks,” Marcia (Robyn Hurder) sings “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” – there’s a glaring sense of inauthenticity to both the song and singer, especially when the older Neil informs us that Marcia got all the homes and expensive art a mere ten minutes after singing “Forever in Blue Jeans,” a paean to life’s simple pleasures. And while apocryphal stories about the origin of “Sweet Caroline” abound, I’m not sure the story provided is anywhere close to the real one. Either way, this musical gives no insight as to the inspiration behind any of the songs penned by a true genius (it also eschews songs ranging from late-career triumph “Delirious Love” to “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”).
One gets the sense that Noise sublimates other truths about Diamond – he says he never liked the limelight, but he was the one who pushed to star in The Jazz Singer opposite Laurence Olivier and he was the one who loved to schmooze with celebrities like fellow Brooklynite Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. (One only has to witness when he presented the Best Original Song Oscar to Streisand and Paul Williams to see how much he bathed in stardom.)
If the pair of Diamonds dealt in Noise feel like a couple of deuces, there’s also a couple of aces in this hole: Hurder is fantastic despite an undeveloped part; she’s sultry and hypnotic as Marcia, in great voice and moves as great as ever. And then there is Bri Sudia as no-nonsense music maven Ellie Greenwich, who helped create many of the great songs of the 1960s and launched the careers of many performers in addition to Diamond. Watching A Beautiful Noise, I most found myself wishing I could learn more about her.
A Beautiful Noise