For many years, Neil Diamond was on top of the world. He toured arenas filled with shrieking fans. He wrote “Sweet Caroline,” an irresistible anthem that continues to trigger Pavlovian singalongs — a feat that may delight most performers, but Diamond didn’t leave it at that and was a prolific hit machine.
A 1986 profile in The Latest York Times described him in these words: “Olympian aspiration, raw aggression and agonizing self-doubt.”
As unlikely as this might sound, it’s that last trait that forms the narrative engine of “A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond Musical,” the ambitious, often rousing, occasionally heavy-handed biographical show that opened on Broadway on Sunday on the Broadhurst Theater. We meet a superstar with no confidence, despite being known to interact the beast mode in concert and prowling stages in tight pants and a wide-open satin shirt. He seems perpetually dissatisfied, as if on a fruitless quest — but for what? What gnaws at him?
To reply those questions, the book author, Anthony McCarten, put Diamond on the couch, or more exactly in an armchair: “A Beautiful Noise,” directed by Michael Mayer, is framed as an intensive therapy session between the aging singer (Mark Jacoby) and a psychologist (Linda Powell).
Diamond is there because his wife Katie — spoiler alert: she’s the third one — and youngsters forced his hand. Apparently Diamond is “a bit of hard to live with today,” we’re told. Perhaps his family is frustrated by his grouchiness and poor interpersonal communication skills, at the very least based on his laconic sullenness with the doctor. When she presses him for insights, he curtly says, “I put all the things I even have into my songs.” Tremendous, then let’s see what they need to tell us concerning the man who wrote them.
And so Diamond makes a second entrance, but now he’s in his prime and portrayed by Will Swenson (“Les Misérables,” “Assassins”) in a gravity-defying statement pompadour. It is a swaggering coif which means business, but it surely is contradicted by the 1965 Diamond’s passive posture and apologetic stammering.
Because the doctor and the older singer revisit his catalog — often commenting on the motion from their chairs, like a double vision of the narrator in “The Drowsy Chaperone” — we retrace Diamond’s journey, starting together with his early days on the Brill Constructing. One among the influential American hit factories, the situation also played a key role in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” and it’s where the mighty Ellie Greenwich (an amusingly perky Bri Sudia) starts mentoring the shy young man from Brooklyn within the mid-Sixties.
Diamond, after writing hits for others, like “I’m a Believer” for the Monkees, sets out to perform his own material, with smashing results. In one of the crucial entertaining episodes, he signs with Bang Records, a mob-associated label run by Bert Berns (Tom Alan Robbins), himself a songwriter ok to earn his own tribute musical, “Piece of My Heart.”
By the top of the ’60s, Diamond was a serial chart-topper; by the early ’70s, he had mutated into the Lord Byron of sentimental rock, all strutting gloom and troubled romanticism. That turning point is when Swenson, a stage veteran and Tony nominee for the 2009 Broadway revival of “Hair,” really takes ownership of the role. While he doesn’t entirely let go in the course of the concert scenes — a standard issue with Broadway performers playing rockers — Swenson gets near Diamond’s swaggering sexuality and delivers hit after hit with a relaxed confidence: “Sweet Caroline,” after all, and particularly “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show.” But there isn’t any “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” the epitome of Diamond in his louche Lee Hazlewood mode, which could have really spiced up a musical that may feel timid; likewise, the show’s title echoes Diamond’s 1976 album and one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if his 1968 LP “Velvet Gloves and Spit” had inspired McCarten as a substitute.
In any case, the superstar continues in search of, especially love. While still married to his first wife, Jaye (Jessie Fisher), he falls for Marcia (Robyn Hurder, channeling Ann-Margret). The latter gets among the numbers directly connecting a personality’s motivation or emotion with a song — she sings “Ceaselessly in Blue Jeans,” for instance, when feeling neglected by her consistently touring husband.
But much of the time McCarten — who wrote the screenplays for the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” and whose play “The Collaboration” opens on Broadway later this month — refrains from shoehorning recent meaning into existing lyrics by manipulating the context by which the songs are used, à la “Mamma Mia!” Lots of this show’s only moments simply use the songs as surface signposts, an approach that defeats the purported point of the book but reflects the way in which many listeners experience pop music: We associate it with events and moods, recall what was happening when a success got here on the radio or after we attended a concert.
One such scene is Diamond’s debut on the Bitter End. He performs “Solitary Man” and the audience members, sitting at nightclub tables, slowly lean forward, like flowers drawn to the sun. That is probably the most striking example of Steven Hoggett’s subtle choreography, which to its credit looks like nothing else on Broadway immediately: The movement is fluidly, organically incorporated into the scenes, reasonably than awkwardly grafted onto them.
As Diamond sharpens his live persona in Act II, David Rockwell’s set, until then dominated by hanging lamps, morphs right into a “Hollywood Squares”-like concert stage that comes with the orchestra. (Considering how energized Diamond was when performing, having to retire from touring in 2018 due to Parkinson’s disease should have been especially painful.) All of it looks and sounds great, however the clock is ticking — therapy! — and we aren’t any closer to understanding the true Neil.
Until, in the end, the older singer cracks and stops obfuscating. Naturally, the source of his discontent may be present in his childhood, and the show finally makes the essential connection between Diamond’s artistry and his roots, including his Jewishness. By that time it feels rushed and never quite earned, not to say a bit of too nakedly sentimental.
And yet, the beating heart of “A Beautiful Noise” is that sequence, featuring “Brooklyn Roads” and “America” leading into “Shilo,” which becomes Diamond’s Rosebud and is performed with almost unbearable grace by the ensemble member Jordan Dobson. Never mind: naked sentimentality is just superb.
A Beautiful Noise
On the Broadhurst Theater, Manhattan; abeautifulnoisethemusical.com. Running time: 2 hours quarter-hour.