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On Broadway, Neil Diamond seems a drag and ‘KPOP’ needs a rethink

“A Beautiful Noise” tackles Diamond’s lifelong blues, while “KPOP” explores the making of South Korean pop stars

Will Swenson as Neil Diamond, with the cast of “A Beautiful Noise.” (Julieta Cervantes)
5 min

NEW YORK — Let journals of psychology record that the latest jukebox musical on Broadway is unveiling a revolutionary new offshoot of psychoanalysis: call it hit-song therapy. The curative effect seems to occur most successfully when the platinum-album numbers are composed by the patient, and even more optimally when the person on the couch is megastar Neil Diamond.

The show exploring this novel treatment modality puts the storied singer-songwriter literally in the psychiatrist’s office. Its title is “A Beautiful Noise,” subtitled “The Neil Diamond Musical,” and it marked its official opening Sunday night at the Broadhurst Theatre, in a production that at once manages to be both glittery and gloomy.

The glitter comes in the form of the gazillion sequins adorning Emilio Sosa’s costumes for the musical’s number-one attraction: the charismatic Will Swenson, who plays Diamond in his ascendancy and manages to sound uncannily like the man who’s sold more than 130 million records. The gloom originates in the tortured-artist sadness that hangs over Diamond into old age, as personified by Mark Jacoby, who sits in a chair for much of the show opposite Linda Powell, playing the Doctor.

The psychiatrist proposes going through a huge published volume of his lyrics that includes “Holly Holy,” “Love on the Rocks” and, of course, “Sweet Caroline” as a therapeutic tool. And though “A Beautiful Noise” hits on a through-line of torment in his songbook, the framing of the show as a tour of Diamond’s seeming depression is inevitably dreary.

One empathizes with the difficulty of finding a new narrative hook in the crowded field of jukebox musicals. But the joylessness of Diamond’s personality, as detailed by the musical’s book writer, Anthony McCracken, exists in a discomfiting, static counterpoint to the dynamism of his music. Diamond comes across as so solipsistic that when the inevitable breakthrough occurs late in the proceedings between him and his doctor, there’s no attendant epiphany for the audience.

Needless to say (probably), people who grew up and older loving Diamond’s albums and concerts will be happy enough just experiencing the 29 numbers rolled out by director Michael Mayer and choreographed by Steven Hoggett. Set designer David Rockwell devises tall, sliding platforms containing what look like the strings of a harp or a guitar; they’re lighted by Kevin Adams in sprightly primary colors that belie the offstage Diamond’s monochrome mood.

At times, too, the production turns up the house lights to encourage spectators to sing along with numbers they know by heart. Other songs are handed over to supporting characters in the Diamond biography, most notably his ultimately disaffected first and second wives, Jaye (Jessie Fisher) and Marcia (Robyn Hurder); his present wife, Katie, is mentioned only in a self-serving coda recited by Jacoby.

Hoggett stakes out for Hurder an explosive dance sequence, but it’s Swenson with the workhorse role here, and “A Beautiful Noise” is lucky to have him. It’s been a standout year for Swenson, after a magnetically energetic performance as hyper-delusional Charles Guiteau in an off-Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins.” Playing Diamond, Swenson downshifts into a more brooding gear. Without him, the oddly leaden “A Beautiful Noise” would really be singing the blues.

Evidence of the universes of musical theater and pop entertainment crashing into each other ever more resoundingly can also be found at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, where the long-gestating “KPOP” has officially opened. The concert-style show, about South Korean pop groups and the rise of a superstar, portrayed potently by South Korean singer-actress Luna, was supposed to have made a pre-Broadway stop at the Anthem on the D.C. Wharf. That engagement last December was canceled by its producers because of the pandemic. Which is a shame, because the musical, originally developed off-Broadway at Ars Nova, could use dramaturgical refinement.

The music by Helen Park and Max Vernon for the rising fictional groups, RTMIS (pronounced “Artemis”) and F8 (“Fate”) pulsates exuberantly, and it’s fun to absorb this contribution to the K-pop cultural movement. (Jennifer Weber’s choreography brims with youthful élan.) But an episodic story involving 13 members of the two groups; a domineering producer (Jully Lee) who’s also an ex-star; an aggressive documentary team (Aubie Merrylees and Major Curda) and the origin tale of a new star, Luna’s MwE, overinflate the narrative.

As with “A Beautiful Noise,” you sense in “KPOP” the struggle to place pop-concert performance in a novel framework; “KPOP” was conceived as an immersive audience experience that was later remade for standard theater seating. The wish is that director Teddy Bergman and book writer Jason Kim could have streamlined some of the tired showbiz tropes and concentrated on what “KPOP” does best: sing and dance.

A Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical, music and lyrics by Neil Diamond, book by Anthony McCarten. Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreography, Steven Hoggett; music supervision, Sonny Paladino; sets, David Rockwell; costumes, Emilio Sosa; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Jessica Paz. With Jessie Fisher, Michael McCormick, Bri Sudia, Tom Alan Robbins. About 2½ hours. At Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., New York.

KPOP, music and lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon, book by Jason Kim. Directed by Teddy Bergman. Choreography, Jennifer Weber; sets, Gabriel Hainer Evansohn; costumes, Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi; lighting, Jiyoun Chang; sound, Peter Fitzgerald and Andrew Keister; projections, Peter Nigrini. With Jinwoo Jung, Zachary Noah Piser. About 2 hours 15 minutes. At Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St., New York.