If you’re looking to draw the audience into what sounds like a typical biopic musical piece, Beginning and Ending a Drama in Psychoanalysis is a great tool. And again, “A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical” doesn’t go by all the rules of musical theater. It unfolds first as a hit show within a dramatic retelling of Diamond’s 1960s beginnings in Act 1, followed by a second set of sequential post-60s concerts spliced with images of a broken marriage and lonely childhood, then a hardened, emotional finale and resolution.
All that, plus a glossy, poignant fringe, pre-intermission vocals for “Sweet Caroline.” In the end, “A Beautiful Noise” triumphed, but not without some jagged bumps along the way — like Diamond’s life path.
Under Beautiful Noise, there are two diamonds. There’s the low-pitched 60s-90s Will Swenson “Neil Thinn,” a dark, haunted Jewish kid from Brooklyn looking for pop songs and respect as a poet. There’s also the gritty “Neil Now” by Marc Jacobi, an older man whose performing career has fallen short due to Parkinson’s disease, seeking connection with family and inner peace in a way his younger self couldn’t.
The younger Neil – depressed even after he has achieved countless strikes, first for other business, then himself – longs to succeed on his own terms in order to feed his family and soothe his restless soul. An older Neil seeks to cleanse himself of the darkness that made his younger years unbearable and blighted two marriages. This is how Neil deals with his therapist (Linda Powell) in the first place, hoping to come to terms with his own demons.
Anthony McCarten (screenwriter of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” whose Warhol Basquiat play “The Collaboration” also opens on Broadway this month) brings gravitas and humor to “The Solitary Man” with a voice of “pebbles wrapped in velvet.” McCarten also lends a needed lightness to Diamond’s boisterous demeanor.
“What if Will he is me?” Neil Swenson poses to Marcia Murphy, the soon-to-be second Mrs. Diamond (Robyn Horder) in Once Upon a Time in Greenwich Village. The conversation, which takes place early in his career as a singer, raises one of the many questions Diamond faces in his youth and in his prime.
Diamond’s insecurities grow with confidence with the help of Brill Building songwriter and mentor Ellie Greenwich (Bree Sodia). A fictionalized account of Diamond’s dealings with Bang Records — a mob-based corporation whose “Goodfellas” vibe is heightened thanks to the comedic talents of Michael McCormick and Tom Alan Robbins — it shows an artist grappling with his ambition to create smart songs driven by introspective self-reflection, not just pure pop.
This questioning of the value of pop music begins earlier in “Beautiful Noise,” when the elder Neil looks back on his first single—”I’m a Believer” by the Monkees—as a silly tune made for quick money. That is, until his therapist points out that “I am a believer” is filled with homophones of pain and rain.
The book goes through Diamond’s two failed marriages (before his third success) and losing his connection with his children to the ravages of fame, touring schedules, and professional styling—typical showbiz fare, with nothing special to make it unique to either Neil. The playwright also brings in Diamond’s childhood – an imaginary friend, a love affair with Russian and Polish immigrant Jewish grandparents and his own lack of acclimatization – to work around “Beautiful Noise”, yet somehow affecting how Diamond’s life points in contact with the dark clouds that plague him.
What perfectly connects these dots in the resume is Diamond’s highly infectious songs, and the ways McCarten, director Michael Mayer, and producer and arranger Bob Gaudio (Diamond’s friend, advisor and Four Seasons member whose true story, “Jersey Boys,” were smashing a Broadway musical) place every note within the dramatic framework of “A Beautiful Noise.”
Impressively sung and acted by Swenson in a diamond-inspired, immersive manner without a mere impersonation, young Neil rips through a selection of his greatest hits and worst moments. The swinging “Cherry, Cherry” (complete with a ’60s-era frog from singer-songwriter Herder) punctuates the faint-hearted “September Morning” to illustrate the self-destruction of domestic marital bliss with first wife, Jay Posner (Jesse Fisher). Shortly thereafter, an emotional Swenson and Fisher cleverly re-dissolve marriage with “Love on the Rocks,” deepening each gap with each note. When Diamond’s second marriage falls apart, it’s in a whisper — “You’re not bringing me flowers,” mused Swenson and Horder — rather than a shout.
From there, Gaudio and Sonny Palladino’s orchestras fill Diamond’s early songs with lounge jazz, country twitches, and gritty brassy eccles—giving Swenson growing room to roam on songs like “Cello” and “Play Me.”
The glittery, sequined party clips and heavy fringe of Act 2 aptly depict Diamond’s schmaltzy ’70s and ’80s. The hilarious “Song Sung Blue” is comic relief, but Hurder’s performance of “Forever in Blue Jeans” is clichéd and inappropriate compared to Swenson’s musical and dramatic triumphs. And Jacoby’s lone vocal moment (“I…I Said”) wonderfully depicts an older Neil resolving his life’s deepest questions in a fitting personal declaration before the full finale of the gospel-laden “Holly Holly” — and, of course, a reprise of “Sweet Caroline,” an older Diamond featured songs.
As in Diamond’s words of “Beautiful Noise,” his story is the sound and vision of romance and anger, fleeting marches and moments of joy and affliction. This suits him, and his musical of the same name, like a hand in a glove.