Sweet Caroline, can we call a moratorium on bio-musicals about pop-rock legends? Ever since 2015 Tony winner “Jersey Boys” offered a live behind-the-music look at The Four Seasons, Broadway has seen a parade of similar shows retelling the lives of various music giants with their songbooks shoehorned into the narrative.
Now Neil Diamond is getting similar treatment in “A Beautiful Noise,” a new two-act production opening Sunday at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre. Treatment is the operative word here because the one innovation of Anthony McCarten’s script is to frame the narrative around an older Diamond (Mark Jacoby) and his psychoanalytic sessions with a doctor (Linda Powell), whom Diamond even names in the Playbill.
Seems that the veteran songwriter and performer, legendary for dozens of worldwide tours where his sequined outfits could outsparkle Cher’s, was actually a painfully shy introvert from Brooklyn whose best friend growing up was a figment of his imagination. Armed only with a book of the lyrics of his hit songs (39 albums, 40 Top 40 hits — as we’re reminded more than once), Powell’s doc manages to coax the older Diamond into sharing a lifetime of insecurities despite an enviable catalog of tangible worldly success.
We get a series of familiar biographical set pieces, with Jacoby and Powell plunked in their leather armchairs at the side of the stage like Statler and Waldorf from “The Muppet Show” balcony. There’s the auditioning at the Brill Building, where Diamond actually tries to change his name to sound more Jewish; the recording-studio realization that he should perform his own songs; the dubious contract he signs with a Mob-owned record label; the abandoning of his high school sweetheart (Jessie Fisher, who makes no impression in a thankless role) while she’s pregnant with their second child; and the wooing of his soulmate of a second wife (Robyn Hurder, a belting sensation who deserves a show built around her) — until he estranges himself from her as well for the adoration of concert crowds.
Will Swenson (“Hair,” “Les Misérables”) performs a bit of a vocal magic act as the younger Diamond, transforming his naturally Broadway-ish singing voice into a reasonable simulacrum of the star’s distinctive “gravel wrapped in velvet” vocalizing. He manages to convey both the swagger and the inherent discomfort with swagger that are at the root of Diamond’s persona. He also seems comfortable in Emilio Sosa’s bedazzled costumes (the same cannot be said of the series of period wigs he dons throughout the show).
Even with the therapy framing device, though, the story beats will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a documentary about a music act in the last 50 years — and Diamond’s life is decidedly lacking in debauchery and excess compared to his peers. (Curiously, we never even meet Wife No. 3, the one who encouraged him to go to therapy in the first place.)
As with many bio-musicals, the lyrics to the biggest hits don’t always fit snugly into the narrative. Hurder’s Marcia, frustrated by her hubby’s constant touring, gets to sing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” naturally, and then belts the hell out of “Forever in Blue Jeans” — but why in the world is this on-her-own Malibu housewife longing for denim when she’s busy lunching with Robert Redford and his wife?
More puzzling is Steven Hoggett’s choreography, which sometimes seems to have been inspired by middle-school pageants in its awkward, literal simplicity — the hand motions for the bum-bum-bummmm of “Sweet Caroline” are particularly underwhelming. The hard-working chorus has a commendable mix of backgrounds and body types but too often they seem like an unnecessary intrusion, given far too little to do.
The real draw here are the tunes, from familiar hits like “Sweet Caroline” and “America” (which gets three separate versions) to I-didn’t-know-he-wrote-that surprises like The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and the reggae standard “Red, Red Wine.” And director Michael Mayer rightly keeps the focus on the Diamond songbook — and the lyric complexity that can often be found just under the surface of his infectious melodies.
Given the advances in technology, you can imagine a future in which coders will be able to re-create the Neil Diamond concert experience in hologram form. (The star, now 81, retired from touring four years ago due to a battle with Parkinson’s.) For now, though, Swenson & Co. offer a reasonable facsimile of Diamond in the flesh for fans to soak up. Or, to paraphrase that quintessential Diamond hit “Sweet Caroline,” they try so hard, so hard, so hard.