BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL (Theatre Review, 2016)


beautiful A piano sits center stage under a low beam spotlight. No other set decorations are present. The simplicity is symbolic of the public image of Carole King – a grounded artist whose prolific songwriting skills weave a tapestry of hit songs that began in the late 1950’s. In a somewhat awkward opening, Abby Mueller takes the stage as Ms. King and sheepishly admits that, as a Brooklyn girl, she feels like she is ‘home’ and breaks into her mega-hit “So Far Away”. The song sets the feel good tone for the audience, and by the end of the evening, we learn that’s her on stage at Carnegie Hall, and the rest of the story is in flashback form.

This is opening night at the Dallas Winspear Opera House as the national tour continues for the production of the 2014 Broadway hit … one that ended with Abby’s sister Jessie Mueller winning a Tony Award. The house is full, and the audience is as friendly as they come – ready to be reminded of the happy life times when Ms. King’s songs spoke for their emotions. The sound glitch present in that opening number is quickly resolved, and for the rest of the evening there is no shortage of toe-tapping and lip-synching.

Playwright and filmmaker (Emma, Bullets over Broadway, Nicholas Nickelby) Douglas McGrath follows the familiar path of another recent jukebox musical and mega Broadway hit “Jersey Boys”. He keeps the steady rain of hit songs coming, while mixing in just enough backstory for us to appreciate the artistic struggles and understand the times. We see the humble beginnings of a very smart teenage Carole Klein (later King) and her festering dream of becoming a professional songwriter – conflicting with the wishes of her mother who deemed teaching to be the profession of choice. Her early meetings at 1650 Broadway (not the Brill Building!) with music producer Don Kirshner (played by Curt Kouril) make it clear that female composers were mostly non-existent during the late 1950’s, and that Carole was a somewhat below-the-radar groundbreaker.

Rather than skim through Ms. King’s now more than 50 year career, the focus remains mostly on those early years writing with her wordsmith husband Gerry Goffin (played by Liam Tobin). The challenges of marrying young, having a daughter, and working multiple jobs are all touched upon, but it’s Carole’s long fight to keep her marriage to Goffin together that takes up most of the non-song time … this in despite of his drugs, philandering, and extreme mood swings. Goffin is portrayed as the tortured artist, while Ms. King is presented as a dowdy do-gooder who also happens to be an immensely talented composer. For much of the production, she looks similar to Elisabeth Moss during the first couple of seasons of “Mad Men”.

Between Goffin/King and their friendly rivalry with Barry Mann (a terrific Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig), the hit songs just keep coming. Many are performed by the writers themselves, while others evolve into full production numbers featuring numerous talented ensemble performers in the role of such acts as Neil Sedaka, The Shirelles, The Drifters, Little Eva and The Righteous Brothers. The latter group has one of the audience-favorite moments as they sing “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” (John Michael Dias is a standout vocalist as Bobby Hatfield).

The emotional sincerity of the times is captured by these writers and their songs, but Mr. McGrath does toss in plenty of cornball comedy to make sure everyone is paying attention between musical numbers. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil could be considered comic relief were it not for their own prodigious writing talent: “On Broadway”, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling”, “Walking in the Rain”, and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”.

The Goffin/King numbers included here are numerous and impressive: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”, “Up on the Roof”, “One Fine Day”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, “Take Good Care of my Baby”, “Loco-Motion”.

The real story here is the blossoming of a shy woman into an artist who trusts her talent and believes she has something to sing about. Once her marriage to Goffin finally ended, Ms. King moved to Los Angeles and worked with super producer Lou Adler (known today as Jack Nicholson’s Lakers buddy). Her 1971 solo album Tapestry featured such hits as “So Far Away”, “You’ve Got a Friend” (a huge hit for James Taylor), “It’s Too Late”, “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman”, and this show’s title track and finale, “Beautiful”.

Unlike many musicals, this show doesn’t have a true “showstopper”, but the sheer number of hit songs familiar to the crowd provide the feel-good atmosphere that leaves those attending feeling joyous and well entertained. A very nice performance from Abby Mueller allows us to take in the music, while also respecting the long road and accomplishments of the great Carole King … winner of Grammy awards, and inductee into both the Songwriter Hall of Fame, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The production is also a reminder that nice people can succeed in an industry that thrives on ‘bad boys’ and artists with an edge.

 

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