Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Today most celebrities are on social media, so everything they do is shared with the public. It was quite different years ago when celebrities like Neil Diamond performed. If they chose to keep their lives private, they stayed private.
Diamond’s music is still extremely popular. He had 39 albums, 40 Top 40 Hits, and 120 million albums sold and was bigger than Elvis. His fans bought his music and flocked to his concerts but knew little about him.
Now at age 82 and unable to perform and tour, he has teamed up with Bob Gaudio (“Jersey Boys”) to present “A Beautiful Noise,” his musical memoir directed by Michael Mayer.
The show opens with an older Diamond referred to Neil - Now (Mark Jacoby) sitting in an armchair across from a therapist. Diamond is despondent, and his third wife Katie (who never appears in the show) convinces him to seek counseling. He is reluctant and resistant. Claiming to be unfamiliar with his work, the therapist (Linda Powell) gets a book of his songs and encourages him to talk about himself through his music.
As he begins to share, the scene opens to a young version, Neil -Then, played by the talented irrepressible Will Swenson. If you closed your eyes, you would think that it was Diamond himself performing. Swenson, energetic and clad in Diamond’s trademark spangled outfits (Costume design -Emilio Sosa ) gives spirited versions of his most popular songs, backed up by a young talented ensemble of singers and dancers. The numbers often go on too long, but the performers work hard and are appealing.
Diamond’s songs are eclectic. Some like “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” and "Kentucky Woman' are unique, given they are penned by a Jewish boy from Brooklyn. Other pieces are introspective like “I Am, I Said” and “A Solitary Man.” Still others continue to be crowd favorites like “Sweet Caroline” and a staple at every family wedding and bar mitzvah.
I’d always heard that “Sweet Caroline” was inspired by Caroline Kennedy but in the show, Neil - Now describes his unfortunate dealings with the unsavory owners of Bang Records. He tries to get out of his contract with them, but they threaten him to produce hits. The song came as an inspiration and got him released from his contract. Although Neil- Now says it was a frightening time for him, the depiction of the gangster seems more like a cartoon than a threat. The song closes the first act and, predictably, the audience joins in singing along.
Diamond fans skew older and our audience was of the expected demography, mostly female. I honestly expected more of a reaction to big ensemble numbers, yet some of the applause seemed half-hearted.
Perhaps the sadness and loneliness conveyed by the older Diamond cast a slight pall over the audience who might have been considering their older selves. So at the end of Act 2 when Neil-Now actually sings “I Am, I Said” the audience greeted him warmly and with appreciation.
In telling the story of his frustrations and loneliness, Diamond describes his marriages. He loses his family by cheating on his first wife, and then neglects the second one with his touring. It is through performing that he becomes fulfilled,, a “frog who dreamed of being a king.”
Swenson works extremely hard and the audience loves him. He performs all the concert numbers. Other songs are quieter and smaller and used to propel the story, suggesting that the songs were written to reflect his life and feelings at the time. Sometimes others in the cast perform them. When his first marriage falls apart, his wife Jaye (played by Jessie Fisher) sings “Love on the Rocks.”
Later his second wife Marcia (talented attractive Robyn Hurder ) complains about his long periods away from home and sings “Forever in Blue Jeans.” When they realize it is the end of their relationship, the couple sings, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”
Did Diamond write the songs to express what was going on in his life? That is what “A Beautiful Noise” suggests. However, that’s the problem with jukebox musicals. Sometimes songs are force fed to move the action. Sometimes it’s effective-sometimes not.
“A Beautiful Noise” does it better than most. In great part, due to Swenson’s wonderful performance. Yet we still leave a bit chastened, that the songwriter- performer who created the music and gave some much pleasure was so sad and lonely. Although he can no longer perform himself, this musical is his way to continue to share his music with an audience. Maybe Neil Diamond isn’t there in person - but he is still present. And his many fans are grateful for that.
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