Now it’s Neil Diamond’s turn. And Diamond is very fortunate to have Will Swenson playing him in “A Beautiful Noise,” directed by Michael Mayer when it premieres at the venerable Emerson Colonial Theater. The power of Swenson’s electric performance almost blows the roof off the old seal.
‘A Beautiful Noise’ has some issues – more on that later – but they vanish from mind as Swenson blasts full throttle through Diamond compositions like ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, ‘Holly Holy’, ‘Solitary Man ‘, ‘Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show’, ‘Cherry, Cherry’, ‘Shilo’ and, yes, ‘Sweet Caroline’.
(Do I even need to tell you that the audience inside the Colonial took to Fenway Park’s “So good, so good, so good” refrain during “Sweet Caroline”?)
Whether singing or speaking, Swenson eerily channels Diamond’s vocals as well as the way he moved during gigs in his prime, sequin jumpsuits and all. But the portrait of the actor goes beyond mimicry. As Jessie Mueller did in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”, Swenson manages to both inhabit and reinforce the real character he plays.
It’s not that his mix of magnetism, virtuosity and dynamism will surprise anyone who has ever seen him on stage. Swenson’s gleefully hammered-out incarnation of the Pirate King in Barrington Stage Company’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance” remains one of my favorite theatrical memories.
Because some cast members of “Beautiful Noise” fell out with COVID, forcing a hiatus in performances, production continued Sunday night after nine previews instead of the scheduled 19. You wouldn’t know it from the performance, and that’s a credit to everyone involved.
Steven Hoggett’s choreography deftly uses movement to capture certain turns, including the moment Diamond is sucked into the vortex of stardom, his life will never be the same. The ensemble does a top-notch job from start to finish, as does the live band, which includes musical supervisor and arranger Sonny Paladino on keyboards.
Now about those issues.
The overall story of “A Beautiful Noise” is quite familiar: an artist aspires to fame, then achieves it, but at a personal cost, with happiness remaining elusive. This familiarity leads to the musical’s momentum slowing in places during the second act, when “A Beautiful Noise” ventures dangerously close to the mood of a tribute act.
Then there is the material itself. Although he was a skilled and driven pop craftsman, Diamond wrote a good number of winks to go along with his many good songs. Both categories are widely represented on stage. Points for completeness, I guess, but the less-than-beautiful noise creates a few weaknesses in the show.
For example, book author Anthony McCarten and director Mayer make a valiant attempt to present “I Am…I Said” as a kind of magnum opus, setting the song as a groundbreaking psychological duet between Swenson and a Mark Passionate Jacoby, who plays the old Diamond (and is excellent everywhere). But that effort clashes headlong with the banality of “I Am…I Said” itself, including the cringe-inducing lyrics “And no one heard at all / Not even the chair.”
Another disappointing effort is “Forever in Blue Jeans,” which comes across as mere filler despite the best efforts of talented Robyn Hurder, who plays Diamond’s second wife, Marcia Murphey, and performs the song. His energetic, all-consuming stage dancing fails to bring “Blue Jeans” to life.
A slightly surprising plus is how well the show’s framing device works – certainly better than I expected. The elder Diamond (Jacoby) sits in a leather chair in a therapist’s (Linda Powell) office, trying to get to the bottom of his feelings of dissatisfaction and self-doubt. Cue the flashbacks, with Jacoby staring darkly.
We see Swenson as Diamond in his early years, trying to break through as a songwriter, then as a performer, with the encouragement of record-producing singer-songwriter Ellie Greenwich (a pleasantly sardonic Bri Sudia ). After hearing him sing, Greenwich described Diamond’s voice as “gravel wrapped in velvet” and told him, “You’re too good to write just for other people.”
Later, in an effort to carve out an independent artistic identity rather than serve as a hit machine, Diamond struggles to get out of his contract with a mob-controlled record company.
Diamond leaves his first wife, Jaye Posner (Jessie Fisher) for the glamorous Marcia. That marriage, too, eventually dissolved, a victim of Diamond’s constant touring, a turn of events painfully crystallized in Swenson and Hurder’s duet on “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”
Throughout his career, at least as portrayed in “A Beautiful Noise,” Diamond has struggled with the unease of “is-that-all-is-it?” syndrome, joy that dissipates too quickly, the sour smell of success. The answers that “A Beautiful Noise” ultimately provides to this unease seem too easy and too simple.
But none of the show’s flaws are enough to diminish, let alone eclipse, Swenson’s achievement. Seeing a respected veteran performer like him rise to the occasion as he does in “A Beautiful Noise” offers a kind of special gratification to a theater lover. You could say it feels… well, you know.
A BEAUTIFUL SOUND
Book by Anthony McCarten. Music and lyrics by Neil Diamond. Musical supervision and arrangements, Sonny Paladino. Choreography, Steven Hoggett. Directed by Michael Mayer. At the Emerson Colonial Theatre. Until August 7. Tickets from $49 to $399. 888-616-0272, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com