By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (‘Steppin’ Out“)
When A Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical opened on Broadway nearly eight weeks ago, there was some bellyaching from first night critics that book writer Anthony McCarten’s conceit of a former rock star and multi-Platinum selling songwriter in an ongoing therapy session was hardly worthy of a glitzy, splashy Broadway musical.
But make no mistake about it. It is the intimacy of Mark Jacoby’s depiction of Neil – Now opposite Doctor (Linda Powell) in scenes throughout the work that is the glue that keeps this musical together and allows charismatic Will Swenson’s portayal of Neil – Then to be summoned out of memory. The Neil Diamond who soared on stage and delighted millions of fans is also the Neil Diamond facing the end of his career and having to own up to his past failings and deep-seated feelings.
Many recent jukebox musicals have taken their cue from Jersey Boys, the most successful and long-lived of these musical icon biographies. These include Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, MJ: The Musical and Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, who have employed eminent, award-winning writers Katori Hall, Lynn Nottage and Dominique Morisseau to tell the stories.
McCarten’s charge was no less compelling. But in the case of Neil Diamond, the key to understanding the talented Jewish boy from Flatbush who broke out of his coccoon of self-doubt and emerged as a mesmerizing butterfly had little to do with drugs, physical abuse or professional discord. It was the tremendous weight of his own super stardom and the mechanism behind it juxtaposed with his inability to connect to his family and loved ones that resulted in two failed marriages and left him reeling from a final diagnosis of Parkinson’s that has now sidelined his career.
It is his opening up in these therapy sessions which allows for his inner torment and conflict to rise to the surface, unleashing the powerhouse performer whose songs captivated millions of fans worldwide. In accordance with McCarten’s book, the songs tell the story of his life well as in the case of his first marriage breakdown to Jayne Posner (Jessie Fisher) in “Love on the Rocks”, his second wife Marcia Murphey’s plaintive call for him to be more present in her life (“Forever in Blue Jeans”) rendered with verve by Robyn Hurder and the heart-rending “I Am I Said” that Jacoby sings near the work’s conclusion.
When the stage opens up from the low-key therapy sessions to Diamond’s full-bore production numbers like “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” and “Thank the Lord for the Night Time” a supporting orchestra on a backlit, three-tiered platform is revealed along with Steven Hoggett’s intricately timed choreography by cast members. The supporting ensemble members are known collectively as “The Beautiful Noise” and many of them have opportunities through the performance to have their own solos within numbers as well.
Annamarie Milazzo’s remarkable vocal designs accomplish what Al Hirschfeld did with a pen, at times capturing the fewest amount of vocal lines needed to impart the essence of Diamond’s well-known selections. Coupled with Diamond’s own record producer Bob Gaudio (who also produces the musical) and the rich and powerful arrangements provided by Sonny Paladino (who also conducts the orchestra) and Brian Usifer, these reimagined works pay homage to the singer-songwriter while not trying to do so note for note. These are songs perfectly melded to a Broadway setting and they require the stewardship of a true star to take them to the absolute limit.
When Swenson takes the spotlight as the Neil Diamond of the past, he does so at first tentatively, writing “I’m a Believer” for The Monkees after being encouraged by a no-nonsense Ellie Greenwich played to perfection by understudy Becky Gulsvig filling in for Bri Sudia. Later in the show she dons a wig to portray Rose Diamond, Neil’s mother, opposite Tom Alan Robbins as father and husband Kieve Diamond. Robbins also plays Bang Records’ label owner – and songwriter of hits like “Hang On Sloopy” – Bert Berns. He is joined with Michael McKormick, who portrays Berns’ gangster partner at Bang, Tommy O’Rourke. McCormick also plays Paul Colby, the owner of The Bitter End coffee house, where Diamond began his career.
Swenson’s transformation into an assured, performer of the highest magnitude can be described in astronomical terms. He increases in size and importance growing into a giant star that dominates the pantheon of others and whose brilliance so outshines the others that they appear dimmer. He eclipses “the King” – Elvis Presley – on his musical journey in terms of attendance and gross, putting on a display that few others can or will ever achieve. But rather than explode in the fashion of a super nova – which one might expect with such an intense luminary – he ends as a black hole, collapsing under the weight of his own celebrity while wrapping the fabric of space around him so tightly that his former light and heat are forever hidden from view.
But while his preeminence is still viable, Swenson makes us witness to a whirling dervish of driven passion as chart topping number after number are masterfully reconstituted with The Beautiful Noise in support. What Swenson does is pay homage to the creative artist and the legendary performer while allowing his own interpretation to soar rather than be seen as mere impersonation. With a smile and an all-knowing look, he knows he has the audience firmly within his grasp as he takes them on a journey of his own design while they are in a rapture of adoration and excitement.
While few of Diamond’s fans know of his wives, they are an important part of this tale, too. While in sessions with his doctor, he comes to terms with his personal faults of infidelity while still married to his first wife, his abandonment of his second wife and his children to his songwriting and performing career and a stubborn form of selective memory that is eventually peeled away to reveal his humanity and terrifying loneliness. The duet of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” Swenson sings with Hurder is especially heart rending.
On the creative side, the lighting designs by Kevin Adams are important in maintaining intimacy in sessions with the doctor, as the stage is initially bathed in darkness. Then, during the concert recreations, the radiant and pulsating lighting effects announce the arrival of the show’s namesake. The sound designs by Jessica Paz are also an integral element to the show as are the creative costuming choices by Emilio Sosa that capture the decades of the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.
It would seem director Michael Mayer (Funny Girl) took his time in putting all the working parts of this monumental musical together in workshops and in an out-of-town tryout in Boston prior to its opening. Yes, an ongoing therapy session hardly seems worthy of a blockbuster Broadway show. But in this case there is a psychological element for a man – both the ageless superstar and the aged senior – to look backward and attempt to move forward. This is essential to McCarten’s book and absolutely necessary to raise this musical to a level worthy of the phenomenon of Neil Diamond.
A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond Musical (2 hours and 15 minutes including intermission) opened on Broadway on December 4, 2022 and continues at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., in New York City. Currently, the show is participating in the winter 2023 Broadway Week promotion where a limited number of 2-for-1 and $125 upgrade tickets will be available for select performances now through February 12, 2023.
Neil – Now: Mark Jacoby
Doctor: Linda Powell
Neil – Then: Will Swenson
Ellie Greenwich/Rose Diamond: Bri Sudia
Jaye Posner: Jessie Fisher
Marcia Murphey: Robyn Hurder
Paul Colby/Tommy O’Rourke: Michael McCormick
Bert Berns/Kieve Diamond: Tom Alan Robbins
The Beautiful Noise: Paige Faure, Aaron James McKenzie, Kalonjee Gallimore, Mary Page Nance, Alex Hairston, Max Sangerman, Jess LeProtto, MiMi Scardulla, Tatiana Lofton, Deandre Sevon
Alternate Neil – Then: Nick Faradiani
Standbys: Neal Benari, Becky Gulsvig
Director: Michael Mayer
Scenic Design: David Rockwell
Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Hair, Wig & Makeup: Luc Verschueren
Vocal Designer: Annmarie Milazzo
Incidental Music/Dance Arrangements: Brian Usifer
Orchestrations: Bob Gaudio, Sonny Paladino and Brian Usifer
Casting: Jim Carnahan, CSA; Jason Thinger, CSA
Music Supervision: Sonny Paladino
Choreography: Steven Hoggett