If you are looking to draw an audience into what seems like a typical biographical jukebox musical, starting and ending your drama in psychoanalysis is a great device. Then again, “A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical,” does not exactly play by all the rules of jukebox theater. It unfolds first as a hit parade within a dramatic retelling of Diamond’s 1960s beginnings in Act 1, followed by a second act set of sequined, post-1960s concerts spliced with portraits of a broken marriage and lonely childhood, and then a denouement of hardcore emotional resolve.
All that, plus sparkly fringe and a poignant, pre-intermission sing-along of “Sweet Caroline.” Ultimately, “A Beautiful Noise” is victorious, but not without a few rough bumps along the way — much like the trajectory of Diamond’s life.
Within the “Beautiful Noise” framework, there are two Diamonds. There is Will Swenson’s low-voiced “Neil Then” from the 1960s to 1990s, a dark, cloud-haunted Jewish kid from Brooklyn looking for pop hits and respect as a poet. There is also Mark Jacoby’s gravelly “Neil Now,” an older man whose performing career was felled by Parkinson’s disease, looking for connection with family and for inner peace in a way his younger self could not.
The younger Neil — depressed even after he achieves countless hits, first for other acts, then himself — craves success on his own terms in order to feed his family and soothe his restless soul. The older Neil seeks to cleanse himself from the darkness that made his younger years unbearable and ruined two marriages. This is how Neil gets to his therapist (Linda Powell) in the first place, hoping to come to terms with his demons.
The book by Anthony McCarten (the “Bohemian Rhapsody” screenwriter whose Warhol-Basquiat play, “The Collaboration,” will also open on Broadway this month), brings gravitas and humor to the “solitary man” with a voice of “gravel wrapped in velvet.” McCarten also lends necessary lightness to Diamond’s woe-is-me demeanor.
“What if woe is me?” poses Swenson’s Neil to Marcia Murphey, the soon-to-be-second Mrs. Diamond (Robyn Hurder) at Greenwich Village’s Bitter End. The conversation, held at the start of his career as a singer, raises one of the many questions that Diamond faces both in his youth and in his dotage.
Diamond’s insecurity gets a boost of confidence with the aid of Brill Building songwriter and mentor Ellie Greenwich (Bri Sudia). A fictional recounting of Diamond’s dealings with Bang Records — a Mob-laced enterprise whose “Goodfellas” vibe is heightened by the comedic talents of Michael McCormick and Tom Alan Robbins — shows an artist wrestling with his ambition to create smart songs driven by self-reflective introspection, rather than just pure pop.
That questioning of pop’s value begins earlier in “A Beautiful Noise,” when the older Neil looks back at his first hit — “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees — as a silly tune penned for quick cash. That is, until his therapist points out “I’m a Believer” is rife with rhyming elements of pain and rain.
The book runs through Diamond’s two failed marriages (prior to his successful third) and his lost connection to his children due to the ravages of fame, tour schedules and professional determination — typical showbiz fare, with nothing special to make it unique to either Neil. The playwright also brings Diamond’s childhood — one of imaginary friends, a loving connection to Russian and Polish immigrant Jewish grandparents and his lack of fitting in — to bear on “A Beautiful Noise,” yet somehow misses the mark on how the dots of Diamond’s life thoroughly connect to the dark clouds that plague him.
What connects those biographical dots more completely are Diamond’s wildly contagious songs, and the ways McCarten, director Michael Mayer and producer-orchestrator Bob Gaudio (Diamond’s friend, consigliere and the one-time Four Seasons member whose own true story, “Jersey Boys,” was a Broadway musical smash) place each tune within the dramatic framework of “A Beautiful Noise.”
Impressively sung and acted by Swenson in a manner that is Diamond-inspired and immersive without mere impersonation, the young Neil rips through a selection of his greatest hits and worst moments. A swinging “Cherry, Cherry” (complete with a ’60s-era frug from dancer-vocalist Hurder) is interspersed with a swooning “September Morning” to illustrate the self-destruction of homey marital bliss with first wife, Jaye Posner (Jessie Fisher). Not long after that, an emotional Swenson and Fisher cleverly rewind the dissolution of a marriage with “Love on the Rocks,” with each fissure deepening with every note. When Diamond’s second marriage implodes, it is with a whisper — Swenson and Hurder’s pensive “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” — rather than a scream.
From there, Gaudio and Sonny Paladino’s inventive orchestrations fill Diamond’s early hits with lounge jazz, country twitches and bold brassy eclat — giving a growly Swenson room to roam on songs such as “Shilo” and “Play Me.”
Act 2’s spangle, sequin and fringe-heavy concert segments aptly portray Diamond’s schmaltzy 1970s and ‘80s. A humorous take on “Song Sung Blue” acts as comic relief, but Hurder’s rendition of “Forever in Blue Jeans” is corny and out of place compared to Swenson’s musical and dramatic triumphs. And Jacoby’s sole vocal moment (“I Am… I Said”) handsomely portrays an older Neil resolving his life’s deepest questions in a fitting personal revelation before the full-cast finale of the gospel-laden “Holly Holy” — and, of course, a reprise of “Sweet Caroline,” the biggest of Diamond’s signature hits.
As in Diamond’s lyrics to the song “Beautiful Noise,” his story is the sound and vision of romance, fury, passing parades and moments of joy and strife. That fits him, and his musical of the same name, like a hand in a glove.