Two Diamonds sparkle in ‘A Beautiful Noise’
By Rich Fahey
BOSTON – You know the music in the jukebox. But do you really know the man behind it?
Neil Diamond has crafted a career that has spanned generations and included 120 million albums sold and 38 Top 10 songs on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts.
Now, at a particularly poignant time in his life after Parkinson’s Disease ended his touring career in 2018, a new musical is trying to find the man behind the music.
The world premiere of “A Beautiful Noise,” the Neil Diamond musical, now at the Emerson Colonial Theatre through Aug. 7, succeeds on two fronts: Presenting in a spectacular manner Neil Diamond the performer while also delving deep inside the man to find both the angels and demons.
“Plaza Suite” in February 2020 was the last pre-Broadway tryout at the Colonial before Covid hit and “A Beautiful Noise” now hopes the route to Broadway success runs through Boylston Street in Boston. “A Beautiful Noise” is scheduled to begin previews at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York City on Nov. 2 with an official opening on Dec. 4.
The theater world has gradually taken what was at first considered a pejorative – “jukebox musical” – and elevated it to a Tony-worthy genre, infusing shows such as “Jersey Boys” with superb books, choreography and production values, and in the process making the story an equal partner with the music.
Start with a score that everybody knows and loves – some 29 Diamond songs with new arrangements by Sonny Paladino are presented here in some form or fashion – but then comes the challenge of making an iconic performer human, and therein lies the rub.
Two performers play a large part in making it work. The first is Will Swenson as Diamond. His en pointe, almost uncanny recreation of Diamond spans his years as a young, struggling songwriter, to his beginnings as a performer making $9 and a free drink, to his gradual ascent into super-stardom with concerts in arenas and stadiums.
But right there with him and almost as important is acclaimed actor Mark Jacoby. who portrays an older Diamond, who with the aid of a doctor/therapist (Linda Powell) is looking back through the years.
Diamond and the doctor delve into his songbook and, using his own lyrics from some of his deeply personal songs, pull up the shades on the “clouds” that prevented the performer from fully enjoying his fame and fortune.
Thankfully, “A Beautiful Noise” rests upon a solid book by Andrew McCarten, who finds the humanity in the central character and has us rooting for him even though we already know the story. But lest we get too bogged down in personal drama, McCarten and Director Michael Mayer make sure those scenes are interspersed with beautifully-staged musical numbers.
The musical begins as Jacoby’s Diamond recalls himself as a struggling young songwriter who is challenged by record producer Ellie Greenwich (Bria Suda) to give her a song she can sell and jump-start his writing career. “I’m a Believer” became a hit for The Monkees.
There is angst aplenty in his divorce from his first wife, Jaye Posner (Jesse Fisher), his dangerous brush with a mob-controlled record company, and his eventual divorce from his longtime second wife, Marcia Murphey (Robyn Hurder) after 25 years and two sons, at a time when the road started to feel more like home than home did. His third marriage to current wife Katie McNeil in 2012 is ongoing.
“A Beautiful Noise” has truly been swimming upstream in recent weeks as the official opening neared, with the performance schedule written in pencil instead of ink. A large Covid outbreak shuttered the show, which had only nine preview performances instead of the planned 19. Most pre-Broadway tryouts plan for 2-3 weeks of preview performances. Some of the cast were back on stage for the first time Sunday night following their Covid recovery.
To paraphrase a famous quote from “Star Wars,” you could say: “The Boston is strong in you, Neil Diamond,” even if the performer is a proud native of Brooklyn. Sunday night, about 2.5 miles down the road from the Colonial at the Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway Park, a sell-out crowd was crooning “Sweet Caroline” in the eighth inning, just as it has at every home game since 1997. On June 18 of this year, Diamond appeared at Fenway to sing the song with fans.
“A Beautiful Noise” as currently constituted counts not one, but two sing-alongs of “Sweet Caroline,” complete with waving arms and “so goods.” Note to producers: I don’t know how that will go over on Broadway.
In Act II, we finally get The Full Diamond, as Swenson features longer hair, a spangled white suit, and backup singers and dancers galore for a rocking “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.”
The production values of the concert sequences are simply sublime. Kevin Adams’ lighting, Jessica Paz’s sound, Emilio Sosa’s costumes and David Rockwell’s three-tiered set backing Swenson are all rock concert-ready, and you will find that you have been transported to a concert with Diamond in his prime.
Steven Hoggett’s choreography makes full, effective use of The Beautiful Noise, a diverse cadre of talented singer/dancers who are an indispensable part of the production.
Several of Diamond’s biggest hits get the full production number treatment, including a rousing presentation of his anthem “America.” Diamond is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia and makes a strong statement on the current status of immigrants when the lyric “They’re coming to America…” is followed by an emphatic chorus of “Today!”
The old saw is “when fact becomes legend, print the legend.” But that’s not what’s happened here. With the Parkinson’s Disease that ended his touring days in 2018, Diamond – as performed by Jacoby — has reached a point in his life when he’d like to say to the world at large: This is what I did, and this is who I was. Make of it what you will.
And, behind a couple of spectacular performances, “A Beautiful Noise” makes much of it.
The world premiere production of “A Beautiful Noise,” the Neil Diamond musical. Music and lyrics by Neil Diamond. Book by Andrew McCarten. Directed by Michael Mayer. Music direction and arrangements by Sonny Paladino. Choreography by Steven Hoggett. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Emilio Sosa. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Jessica Paz. Orchestrations by Bob Gaudio, Sonny Paladino and Brisn Usfer. At the Emerson Colonial Theatre through Aug. 7. Tickets: emersoncolonialtheatre.com or call 888 612 0272.