Neil Diamond’s music is part of the soundtrack of Boomer lives. Having sold 130 million records worldwide on 39 albums garnering 40 top 40 hits, the singer/songwriter’s work became an earworm- generated in elevators, lobbies, stores, recognizable even to those who didn’t religiously jam concerts or accrue recordings. Melodies are infectious, lyrics accessible, romantic, personal, and better than you recall. My companion had not been a fan, yet left grinning.
According to a 1985 Barbara Walters interview, at the height of his career, Diamond took four years off for “psychoanalysis and introspection.” Book writer Anthony McCarten frames Noise with the artist in his 80s (Mark Jacoby) facing medical mandate to stop performing, an act that self-defined him. “A little hard to live with these days,” he’s sent to therapy by wife, Katy. Diamond is churlish and dismissive to the doctor (an excellent, low key Linda Powell), telling her, “I put everything in my songs.” The clever shrink buys a coffee table book of his lyrics through which they pore.
Mark Jacoby (older Diamond) and the Company
It turns out he actually did tell his story in chronological song. Without having to shoehorn selections into illumination of events, those chosen seem apt throughout. All but a couple are performed by young Diamond (Will Swenson) as they were familiarly recorded, eliciting much chair/seat dancing and singing along, only some solicited. Additionally, the two wives we meet each have a number – showing vocal chops.
“I have a voice/Started out as a whisper, turned into a scream/Made a beautiful noise…” the company sings spouting from behind the patient’s armchair like a circus car full of clowns. (They are, as current casting dictates, every size shape and nationality- politically correct, jarring to the eye.) Young Neil enters in black sequins and an unnecessarily exaggerated pompadour.
Will Swenson (young Diamond) and Jessie Fisher (pregnant wife Jaye)
We go back to the “beginning.” Having been gifted a guitar at 15, Diamond none the less goes on to pre-med while continuing to plug his songs. He thinks of himself as a writer, not a performer. At last, the extremely insecure Flatbush boy meets someone in the Brill Building (pop song central) who agrees to listen. Singer, songwriter, producer Ellie Greenwich (Brie Sudia with just the right balance of toughness and sensitivity) briefly listens pouncing on the third song, “I’m a Believer” which becomes Popular Song of the Year 1966 (for The Monkees) and goes gold. Cue BIG production number. Wife Jaye (a solid Jessie Fisher) is thrilled. Her husband not so much.
“It was a silly pop song,” older Diamond tells the doctor. “I wrote what I thought would sell.” In fact, just short of graduation, Sunbeam Music Publishing offered him a 16 week job. Admittedly not yet understanding what a “hook” was, material was felt unworthy of renewal. After that, he began demoing his own work. In this streamlined iteration, Greenwich takes him into a studio where other artists record his tunes. At some point, the young man demonstrates what he hears and gets “discovered” as a vocalist. (Why Miss Jones, you’re beautiful without your glasses!)
Robyn Hurder (Marcia)
Greenwich gets him booked at The Bitter End (for $9 and a drink) where we observe soul searching, balladic stillness the artist maintained throughout his career. Swenson sings “Solitary Man” with older Diamond hovering behind. His debut is successful. He meets attractive club employee Marcia (triple threat Robyn Hurder) who encourages and flirts. Divorce follows. Diamond proves himself with a full album. (He’s picked up by Columbia.) The entertainer makes it big and extensively tours leaving wife Marcia and children for protracted periods of time. Like many, fame is as reassuring as it is addictive. Like many, he justifies a grueling schedule as obligatory means to maintain the family’s lifestyle.
Will Swenson (young Diamond ) and the Company
A succession of big numbers follows. Stephen Hoggett’s choreography lacks cohesion. The company has take-no-prisoners energy, but range of ability is apparent. Dance is aesthetically unappealing. Emilio Sosa’s costumes include the worst looking examples of period day wear and stage attire which is unflattering and seems notably cheap. Diamond’s propensity for sequins and sheen is accurate, though once again his wig (Luc Verschueren) is exaggerated, this time cartoonishly.
As the second marriage falls apart, Marcia sings “Forever in Blue Jeans” i.e., your presence is more important than income. The number is too long (the show is too long), but Hurder’s high wattage, sensual turn lights up the stage. “You Don’t Send Me Flowers” fits as if bespoke. Alone for a few years, Diamond then marries (the absent) Katy. Salient questions by the therapist are interjected from the sidelines to which office armchairs have been relegated. In this way, we can watch the elder Diamond’s reaction to manifest history. Mark Jacoby is simply wonderful; fully immersed. There isn’t a moment we don’t feel his nostalgia, regret, and pain.
Will Swenson (young Diamond), Mark Jacoby (older Diamond), Linda Powell (therapist)
When the insightful shrink convinces him to stay to examine one last song, we witness a breakthrough that takes us back to childhood. It’s implied that the artist’s insecurities and endemic loneliness stem from his Jewish, Polish, Russian immigrant parents, an easy if unsubstantiated resolution. Jacoby’s “I Am, I Cry” is wrenching. It’s easy to imagine the performer in Ragtime, Showboat, and Phantom. The Diamonds sing face to face. Epiphany or perhaps acceptance is palpable. We could’ve neatly ended here, but two eleven o’clock numbers follow, one, needless to say, with audience unrestrained in their singing.
Very talented Will Swenson looks somewhat like Diamond. Powerful, gritty vocals emulate without parroting. Swagger is effective if a bit more demonstrative than its original purveyor. Often coming to the lip of the stage, the performer looks at and seduces anyone visible in the audience. Emblematic of Diamond, this is extremely rare on a Broadway stage. Swenson is charismatic, sexy, and dramatically credible.
Will Swenson and Mark Jacoby (Linda Powell in the background)
Except for the unknowable – why huge mainstream success and several loving families didn’t salve Diamond’s demons – Anthony McCracken’s book covers a great deal of territory, maintaining trajectory and clarity. Songs fit a lifeline. Unlike most laudatory musical biopics, the protagonist appears fallible and selfish. His psychiatrist is low key, but very smart. Both wives are grounded.
Director Michael Mayer keeps the production rolling as if on skates. Swenson has only to hold up a hand with his jacket for someone behind him to swiftly retrieve it. Except for a single number when Diamond is raised, but seen way back behind the obtrusive dancing company, sightline performance within performance works. All characters are given opportunity to humanize roles.
As far as the set, usually reliable David Rockwell must’ve farmed this one out. Dozens of different lamps lower from above to various heights. Background is made up of ropes/cords strung from floor to ceiling, sometimes diagonally. What either of these visuals are supposed to evoke is an enigma. Only later on when the band shows up in Hollywood Squares-like lit-up boxes is effect applicable.
Music supervisor/arranger Sonny Palladino and Jessica Paz’s (sound design- loud, but not deafening) are both successful.
Neil Diamond – Photo by Danny Gutierrez (courtesy of the production)
A feast for Diamond fans, but surprisingly, otherwise fun.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes
A Beautiful Noise – A Neil Diamond Musical
Book by Anthony McCarten
Music & Lyrics by Neil Diamond
Directed by Michael Mayer
235 West 44th St.